William Wegman's life went to the dogs long ago. He's been turning weimaraners into objects of art since the early '70s, when he first began to photograph Man Ray, the progenitor of his weimaraner kingdom. But this labor of puppy love isn't over yet; in fact, the man/dog relationship that's spawned an empire of T-shirts and children's books and grown-up books and Sesame Street segments and countless fine-art exhibits is still evolving.
After Man Ray came Fay Ray, followed by Battina, Crooky and Chundo; then there was Chip. These days, the New Yorker's brood has grown to include such youngsters as Candy and Bobbin. And Wegman's still finding new ways to mold all that canine quicksilver into intriguing images. A small chunk of his endless parade of pooch photos -- William Wegman: Strange but True, an exhibit of large-format Polaroids positioning the smoky, lugubrious purebreds in front of vintage circus banners and backdrops-- raised its tent last week at the CU Art Galleries in Boulder. To celebrate, they're throwing a circus-themed party on Friday, along with an awards ceremony honoring the top entries in a homegrown amateur dog-photo contest.
Of course, though Wegman says the dogs lend their own dolefully funny charm to the photos, shooting them isn't all kibbles and biscuits. First, the weimaraners can throw a bone in the shoot just by being, well, weimaraners. "It's not completely open to you," Wegman says. "You have to follow the limitations of their four legs and their horizontalness. Trying to make them vertical is a magic show, in a way. You have to try to understand how they bend or stretch or flop or curl. It's like playing with an art material like clay or bronze."
And second, there are always physical limitations. Focus problems cropped up in the case of the circus backdrops, forcing Wegman to cram the dogs into the frames. The cumbersome camera he works with these days also poses its own set of difficulties. But the result is wonderfully weird: "Weimaraners are a really beautiful color -- it's a subtle color," Wegman notes. "The circus is garish, almost the opposite, while a weimaraner is more like a shadow. And the blankness of their look makes them seem more like illustrations or paintings. It's pretty much against the grain, using this type of dog in this setting."
Regardless of how they look, Wegman's weimaraners know the thrill of the greasepaint. They're social and hardworking and full of...ideas? Yes, ideas. They're not interchangeable: Each injects his or her own personality and quirks into the proceedings.
So does the artist consult with his dogs for their individual brainstorms? "All the time," Wegman says, offering this example: "One page in the book Cinderella called for a picture of a fairy godmother appearing high up in a window in Cinderella's bedroom when she was sad. Trying to prop Batty up in that certain way, she looked more like a dying cockroach rather than a sweet little thing. I have to imagine how they might be when working -- but anatomically, they just might not work that way. Their truth ends up being better." Through this sort of give and take, Wegman and the dogs create their masterpieces.
And those dogs are there to stay. Wegman's latest projects include a series in which the dogs form a kind of flora-dotted landscape; a treasure tome of compiled works; and a coffee-table book -- no, make that a "milk-and-cookies book" -- for kids. (Of his growing body of kid lit, Wegman adds, "I'm addicted to them. I'd like to do more, but I can't flood the market with them.") Retirement just isn't in the works. Says Wegman, "I'd never be so mean to them."