Behind the Picture: A William Wegman Interview

Posted on August 21, 2011

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"Roller Rover," 1986, by William Wegman

There are people who own dogs and love dogs. And then there are dog people—the ones who go a little overboard. These are the people who, as the artist William Wegman told me recently, “are so doggy, everything they do is sort of a dog thing.”

      Wegman, who is and will forever be best known for his droll photographs of Weimaraners, insisted to me that he is not one of those really doggy people when I interviewed him recently for a piece in the September issue of Smithsonian magazine.  The piece tells the story behind a 1986 Wegman image called “Roller Rover,” in which his beloved cinnamon-gray Weimaraner Fay Wray is seen perched atop two pairs of roller skates. The picture, now 25 years old, remains a definitive example of the work that has made Wegman one of the world’s most widely-known conceptual artists. It combines comedy, surrealism, and satire, anthropomorphizing at will—but always with a purpose. His pictures puncture the regal bearing of the beautiful dogs by surrounding the animals with the absurd artifacts of everyday human life. “A noble nature is diminished by platitude, a dignified mien degraded by unworthy aspiration,” in the worlds of art critic Mark Stevens. Wegman is having some fun, but it’s really at our expense, not the dog’s. The dog is just there to help us enjoy being shown for what we are.

      As an addendum to my Smithsonian piece, I thought it would be illuminating to include my interview with Wegman here as a Q&A. As you’ll see, our discussion veered from Fay Wray to Bob and Ray, from dog food to anthropomorphism. But that’s what William Wegman is like .At the very least, if you’ve ever wanted to photograph dogs, you can learn a few things from the great master himself.

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Let’s start with Fay herself, a true supermodel. How did you and Fay meet?

We met in Memphis, Tennessee at Memphis State, and she belonged to dog breeder who was familiar with my photographs of my first dog, Man Ray. I was there to give a talk, and she was in the audience and came up to me afterwards and, in an accent I can’t approximate, said that she would be honored if I would take one of her puppies. She knew that I had lost Man Ray, who died in 1981.

Were you looking for a puppy at that time?

No, not at all. I told her I wasn’t interested, but that I’d be happy to see her little group of dogs. Recalling the moment, my mind sees about 20 different little Weimaraner puppies running around, but a photo of the actual event shows me with about 12. She had two litters of puppies, and one was called Cinnamon Girl, who was quite haunting to me. And when I got back to New York, it was almost like one of those perfume ads—I really could not get her out of my mind. So I went back and got her.

What was it about that puppy that did that to you? Was it her color? Cinnamon is an unusual color for a weimermaner, isn’t it?

 She was a gray cinnamon. There are some that are more bluish gray, silver gray. She was warmer. But it was her beautiful round, yellow eyes that appealed to me. And there is something that I wasn’t aware of, and I should have paid closer attention to: She was a bit…I wouldn’t say fearful, but her head seemed to point down and look up. There was something haunting about her body position. And when I got her up to New York, I thought I’d made a mistake, because she seemed to be terrified of everything—the streets, the noise, someone kicking a metal trash can, or a roll-down gate over a store front.

How old was she when you got her?

I got her at six months, and didn’t start working with her until she was about a year, because I really didn’t want to continue with dogs. I felt a little protective of Man Ray, and I didn’t want to just march on with the next version of that. But as I recall, when she was about a year old she said to me, “I didn’t come all the way from Tennessee to New York just to lie around in your studio. Let’s get to work!”

She liked being in front of the camera?

Once I started to work with her she really did start to transform into this magnificent, really proud creature. I have had dogs that were just sort of born into it—Fay’s offspring and so forth, they just, for them, it’s no big deal. But for her working was really special. She liked things to be difficult. To just sit there and stay wasn’t interesting to her. She liked doing things that evoked a kind of awe in the spectators that watched her do them.

The camera I was using, the Polaroid 20×24, is as big as a refrigerator, and when she posed she wasn’t looking at me—she was looking right into the lens, and sometimes she just a few inches away from that lens. So she really developed a kind of attitude about the camera, and I think it made her feel very powerful to be in that position.

You once described her as being “Garboesque.”

Actually her daughter was much more flexible and blasé, and maybe more glamorous. My first art dealer, Holly Solomon, said Fay was actually kind of suburban. I disagreed. I thought she was very elegant and kind of lofty, and also kind of evil. I think it all has to do with the illusion of where her eyes are set and the droopiness of her ears. A lot of how we feel about dogs when we see them has to do with how their position conforms to the camera angle. I’ve recognized that a lot though the years with dogs whose ears kind of tilt a certain way. Photographically they appear more intelligent than those whose ears cling to the side of their heads, because it broadens out their face somewhat.

 How did Fay compare to Man Ray as a model?

Well, she was very different. Man Ray kind of filled the picture plane in a very solid way, and Fay coiled into it with a kind of energy that I thought of as a kind of thoroughbred power. Part of it had to do with the fact that Man Ray was older when I got him in Los Angeles in 1971.  By the time I got him to the Polaroid studio he was on his last legs. He was a larger and more static dog who projected a kind of stoic, everyman thing. Also, he was a male and she was a female. With Fay Wray, it was her eyes that seemed to bring an electricity to the picture, and her musculature was more prominent than Man Ray’s, at least through the Polaroids I took.

 So you started using the Polaroid in the early 1980s?

Well it was 1979. Man Ray died in 81, so that was just three years of working with him. .

What led you to start using the Polaroid 20×24 camera?

Another photographer, Joann Verburg, who was running the Polaroid studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, introduced me to the camea. Polaroid had just invented this camera a year or so before and they started to invite artists to come and use it. Joann kept calling me and inviting me, and finally just to get her to get her to stop calling me I went there, and I really liked it.

Okay. So let’s talk about Roller Rover, which was made in 1986, I think.

So that would be one of the first images with Fay, and she was about a year-old dog. As I said, she liked to do things that were difficult, and I thought this would give her a challenge.

So she was actually in the roller skates?

She is and was. The trick, as I recall, is that one of the skates is tipped, so they’re not all rolling. Three are rolling and one is set. And I probably took a few shots before one finally jumped out, because of the curves and lines and all those photographic things that photographers and artists look for. It just had the right placements.When you work with Polaroid you didn’t really shoot more than you needed to because you could see what you’ve had every minute and a half—you peel the back off and go, “Okay,” and pin it up and you go, “Okay, we need to do this and we need to do that.” I can’t remember how many shots I took of Fay in the skates, but not really many more than two or three before something jumped out.

 Where did the idea for the roller skates come from?

You know, I probably just acquired them either at a yard sale or a thrift store. That was my usual thing to do: Before I’d go to Boston, I’d go and shop around at Salvation Army stores for props, and I really don’t remember why I thought skates would be a good idea. I myself am an ice skater, not a roller skater.

 I’ve often wondered about shooting Weimaraners how their coloring affects pictures. They almost have a neutral gray coloring…

Their coats are really reflective, so wherever they are they tend to pick up that color. If there is yellow behind them, they look almost like a yellow Labs. Outdoors they look kind of purple, and indoors they get warmer.

You’re still working with Weimaraners who are descended from Fay, who died in 1995. Can you give me a family tree? You have a dog named Penny, correct?

Yes.

 And Penny is the offspring of Bobbin…

Yes, and Bobbin and Candy.

And Bobbin is the offspring of Chip…

Yes.

And Chip is the offspring of Batty, and Batty is the offspring of Fay.

 Yes. You’ve got it.

Where do the dogs live?

They’re all my dogs, and they sleep in bed with us. Under the covers.

You travel with them?

We go to Maine, which is an eight-hour drive in the summer, and we travel around Christmas break. I have two children who are in school, so we’re pretty much in a school schedule.

And what do you feed them? The dogs, I mean.

I feed them basically Nutro lamb and rice, but always with chicken, yogurt, or pretty much whatever we’re eating. And I bike them six miles every night. Here in New York. I take them on a bike path, way later than anyone else is on it. Even when it’s way colder than when anyone else is out. They love that. They kind of sit and look at me and vibrate until that happens.

I read a quote from you: “Photographing someone you love is like making a map of them. You switch back to real life and you see them in a new way.”

 Yeah. It’s like going to Massachusetts and the Cape, and when you drive there you can almost feel that—you know, you’re almost there now—and it’s because of this internal map that you have. It’s like that.

So when you’re photographing someone, or some dog, it’s a recording device, but a very specific recording device—something that etches their faces into your memory.

Yes, and when the big strobe lights go off you get an afterimage—you remember them in that way too. So when you photograph them all day long you get inside them in a way that you can’t get if you’re just being a person with a dog.

Here’s another quote: You said you listen to your dogs. That sounds a little bit like you’re a dog whisperer. Were you always a dog person?

I was. Dogs have always seemed to like me. They come to me. When I was a kid up at a lake in Maine everyone’s dog would come by and check me out. But I’m not one of those really doggy people. There are some people who are so doggy, everything they do is sort of a dog thing. Especially after I had my children I could see some differences.

It seems like you’re relating to dogs in a loving way, but in an objective way too. You don’t really anthropomorphize them.

Yes, and when I do it’s because of the work, not the belief.

You approach them as dogs, you approach their needs as dog needs.

Sure, and when you see them licking up pizza that someone has run over with their car, you realize there is something different between you and them.

When I typed “Roller Rover” into Google, all I got was jigsaw puzzles. It apparently is a huge jigsaw puzzle. How did that come about?

There’s a company Buffalo Games, and every year they kept asking me to do it, and I never really wanted to, but one year we just…probably when we were desperate, we said yes. But I’ve gotten used to seeing the dogs turn up in other places, and I don’t really mind it. As long as it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s haunting.

Very early on in your career and your work with Man Ray, you were doing work with Sesame Street, and Saturday Night Live. You were branching out of the art gallery and museum world even then.

 Yeah, I think artists who came out of the 1960s wanted to find other venues than galleries and museums, for different reasons. It could have been Marxism, it could have been commerce, I don’t know. But there were lots of discussions about the elitist gallery structure, you know, and wanting to break through. For me it was just, once I moved to photography I could see that it was a way to reach an audience, other thank just stick it on a wall or put it in a place. I really started with video project, and at the time the only way they could be seen was to have them broadcast.

 I understand that you were  a big fan of Bob and Ray. Their humor and yours does seem the same.

Yeah,  I remember being on Johnny Carson, or SNL, and being in the back room with Bob and Ray, and one of them looked at my work and said, “Yeah, it seems like our kind of stuff.” And actually Bob came to my retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum about five years ago. He was in his 80s, and I walked him around the whole show. It was fantastic.

How you think their humor equates to your imagery?

Well, it’s droll I suppose. It’s about just going on with  the business of following through with the ordinary.

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