Meeting a friend

William Wegman started his career as a painter. After he became a successful artist, he would meet a friend who would forever change his life. As the story goes, in the 1970s, William Wegman got a new dog. At the request of his wife, the busy artist, who by then was exhibiting internationally, was initially reluctant at the idea of owning a dog.

“My first wife wanted a dog, and I didn’t. I was too busy as an artist, being an artist… I remember flipping a coin because I wasn’t really sure. Three out of five, tails we’ll get a dog. It came out five out of five. It was tails. So, it was destined.”

He soon had a pet Weimaraner, a breed known for hunting. Weimaraners have the uncanny ability to remain still and are known for their obedient temperament. He named the dog after the famed surrealist visionary, Man Ray, and naturally began photographing him.

“So, I took him to my studio, which was natural, and I took his picture, which you would do with your newborn. It was kind of magical how he became. He was kind of transformed by the act of photographing him. I was a little wary of photographing the dog because it’s sort of a gimmick, and it could be construed as being lazy. But he kept giving me more ideas.”

Singular Humor

Wegman was starting an ongoing photography project that would become one of the most famous alliances between photographer and subject. With Man Ray, Wegman would start an unmistakable series renowned for its unique and singularly humorous subject matter. This relationship between Wegman and his dog turned into a celebrated collaboration that has spawned over four decades of photographs depicting Man Ray, Fay Ray, and a lineage of Wegman’s Weimaraner dogs, creating iconic pictures that have left an indelible mark in contemporary photography.

The Early Years

William Wegman was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Growing up in the Northeast, Wegman pursued a career in the fine arts and studied painting in the 1960s in Boston, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and later a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After graduating, Wegman accepted a job teaching at the University of Wisconsin. Sometime after, he moved to Southern California and taught at the California State College in Long Beach. Wegman was a well-regarded artist at the time. He was exhibiting work internationally in museums and galleries. These included solo shows in Paris, New York, London, and Dusseldorf while being included in seminal exhibitions such as the “Documenta V” in Kassel, Germany.

William Wegman, Board Games, 2003
William Wegman, Board Games, 2003

1970s with Man Ray

In the 1970s, William Wegman began to use his dog as the central focus of his work. With an air of grace and “an endearing deadpan presence,” Man Ray became the subject for hundreds of mainly large-format Polaroids from a large 20 x 24 camera. Historically, this camera was most often used for portraiture. The sitter had to remain still through a long exposure while the camera recorded every detail. In this body of work, Man Ray began to play human roles, such as wearing wigs, clothes, engaging in various activities, and even seemed like an attentive and charismatic sitter. Thus, it was not only Wegman’s fantastic, frontal color photographs that captured the viewer’s attention but also Man Ray’s disposition as an expressive model.

The viewer’s response to William Wegman’s work is predicated on the projection that people have for their pets as family members, ultimately imbuing them with human behaviors and characteristics. Dogs have a naturally symbiotic relationship with their owners because they have developed close connections with their owners over centuries of domestication. It is not unusual for a dog lover to bond more with their canine friends than they do with the people around them.

Joyful Observations

Wegman artfully exploits this moving attachment and plays up the almost human characteristics that owners attribute to their pets. His pictures surprise and delight viewers with their freshness, zaniness, and the inventiveness Wegman has in treating Weimaraners as full-fledged family members. Often, Wegman’s photos can make us laugh, but in the long run, they get us to think about situations and moments in our own lives. Ultimately, the photographs exist on several levels. In one, they are joyful observations of a dog as a subject. In another, as “man’s best friend,” the dogs can face dilemmas that are all too human.