There are only five 20×24-inch Polaroid instant cameras in the world. One of these 5-foot, 235-pound mammoths of a camera is responsible for many of the iconic photos produced by artist William Wegman. And if you haven’t heard of Wegman or his work with the camera, you have probably seen his art in someone’s home, online, or in a museum at one point or another.
He’s one of the fortunate contemporary artists who have been able to reach a broad audience, and his impact and presence in the art world refuses to halt. From popular art shows and viewings to children’s books, Wegman’s fascination with the Weimaraner lead to the creation of a new style in art and photography: the personification of dogs.
Wegman is fully aware that “dogs are not like people.” Instead, his videos and photos are meant to reflect “nature, transcendentalism and the didactic tools people create to understand the natural world.”
To Wegman, the Weimaraner is the perfect dog for his work. He loves them for their supermodel-like persona with their “cool, blank gaze” and the fact that they “know innately how to be still.” And these dogs are much more famous than one would presume. They have been featured on Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live, among others.
Yet each photo is taken once. With Wegman, there is only one authentic photo and one true print. If he misses the shot, he misses it.
It is important to note that Wegman does not use these dogs as subjects. Each one has been a pet, and has meant something much more to him. In fact, the idea to use his pets in his work first came to him when his first dog, Man Ray, attempted to be involved in his art. In an interview with Four & Sons, Wegman says, “I would bring him to my studio in California and tie him up in the corner, but he would whine and chew things. I noticed that when I focused the camera on him—both still and video—he became really interested in what I was doing.”
When Man Ray passed away in 1981, Wegman thought his work with dogs was finished. At first, he “thought it would be wrong” to work with another dog. Then he got a new puppy, Fay Ray, named after both Man Ray and Fay Wray from the 1933 film King Kong. After six months with Fay, Wegman says she “told” him “that she was ready to go to work.” Fay participated in some of his best-known work, like Dressed for Ball.
His technique for dressing up Fay in human attire involves placing a hanger around her neck like a collar. Some have claimed this is a form of abuse—to use dogs as art subjects—but Wegman truly loves his dogs. Each one has had a quirk and personality that have contributed to his work and he does not use them solely for art. If anything, it seems they want to be involved.
Although Man Ray and Fay Ray have both passed away, Wegman has four new Weimaraners who love their work and home. He owns two buildings that are conjoined. Part of the buildings is dedicated to his work—which includes a studio as well as rooms for props, editing and storage. The living area accommodates the dogs’ needs with concrete flooring and couches just for them. The dogs are very involved in work and home life. They love to follow Wegman around and watch him paint and work.
Though Wegman has created videos, photos, paintings and books, he has also created a new GIF to add to his oeuvre. It’s an oeuvre that is dedicated to his dogs, but ironically mimics humans.
Did You Know?
Dr. Edwin Land created the first Polaroid instant camera between 1977 and 1978, and only five were ever made along with a working prototype. There are currently two in New York City, one in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one in Paris, one in Prague and the one working prototype in San Francisco. At its time it was the largest camera to ever produce an instant photo. Several photographers and artists were invited to use the first prototype, which involved names like Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Lucas Samaras and, of course, Wegman himself.
Photo Credit: Royadkins