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For more than 40 years, artist William Wegman has been making portraits and videos of his own beloved Weimaraner dogs, which have appeared in countless publications and featured on Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live. This month, he published a career retrospective book with 300 images from his vast collection. NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson visited his studio and current canines in New York.
If you don't immediately recognize this man walking his dogs down a New York city street you might recognize the dogs. This is William Wegman, the painter, photographer and filmmaker famous for the photos he takes of his beloved pets.
The photographs are funny, beautiful, mysterious and always original. They've graced the pages of countless books and magazines and museum walls for more than 30 years. Wegman says even though he has always been a dog person he didn't set out to photograph them.
My first wife wanted a dog, and I didn't. I was too busy as an artist, being an artist.
Wegman studied painting in college and grad school in the 60's, and he still paints today- creating intricate paintings that incorporate found postcards. He didn't take up the photography he's become more well-known for until after grad school.
I remember flipping a coin, 'cause I wasn't really sure. Three out of five, tails we'll get a dog. And it came up five out of five, it was tails. So, it was destined.
Wegman named his dog after the artist Man Ray. He was a large hunting breed called a Weimaraner.
And so I took him to my studio, which was natural. And I took his picture, which you would do with your newborn, or whatever. And it was kind of magical how he became. He was kind of transformed by the act of photographing him.
I was a little weary of photographing the dog because it's sort of a gimmick. And it could be construed as being lazy or whatever. So, but I kept he kept giving me more ideas.
And the ideas just kept coming. And so did the dogs. After Man Ray, there was Fay Ray, and then her offspring. Wegman has worked with 14 Weimaraners in all. His work became wildly popular. The photographs sell for thousands of dollars and are exhibited all over the world. He's published almost 40 books, including more than 20 children's books and a New York Times best-seller on puppies. His most recent book was published earlier this month: "William Wegman, Being Human", the largest collection of his work ever published.
There are videos and short films, too, starting with quirky conceptual art videos from the 70's… like this one, where Wegman's teaching Man Ray to spell.
And you spelled O-U-T right. But when it came to beach, you spelled it B-E-E-C-H.
Wegman's dogs have appeared on Saturday Night Live
WILLIAM WEGMAN (to dogs):
OK who wants to pitch?
And they've appeared on Sesame Street. The world of high fashion has embraced the dogs- this past summer they appeared in French Vogue, modeling clothing by designers like Gucci.
Wegman lives and works in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan with his dogs Flo and Topper.
Well we're downstairs in the basement where I keep the props.
His basement is filled with decades worth of costumes, trinkets and props that he's used to create his elaborate scenes.
I believe this is the jacket that Batty wore when she was walking her mother Fay in a piece I titled "Dog Walker."
Where do you find all this stuff?
We have a place upstate and there's stores there, Salvation Army's and so forth, there's yard sales.
In his studio upstairs Wegman and his long-time assistant Jason Burch prepare the set. To make it look like the dog's actually wearing the pants, they shape them with plastic and foam and tape the pants down onto the stool.
Wegman explains that dogs are naturally good at standing still because they are "pointers," dogs bred to freeze and point to an animal being hunted. To get this shirt to fit right, Wegman cuts up the back. Burch provides the human hands and arms. Wegman has tricks for getting the dogs to look where he wants them to.
I have photographed humans. Not probably my strength. I like looking at and touching dogs. Moving their head around, or giving them direction. They expect me to talk to them and move them around.
Do you think the dogs enjoy this work?
They love to work. They like to be picked. They wanna be the one up on- that you're looking at and talking to.
You did it. That's a hard one. Super good. …In fact, I have to pretend- if I'm working with Topper, I have to put Flo nearby on a pedestal so she thinks she's working. She's probably wise to the fact that she's just a stand-in. But, that second-best is okay, too, in that circumstance.
You get really close to these dogs emotionally?
Oh yeah. Yeah. They're in on everything, and I'm never with– without them.
Even though Wegman now works with digital cameras, most of his career he worked exclusively with a 20- by 24-inch Polaroid camera.
You say a Polaroid camera. We're not talking about a Polaroid that somebody might have at home. Can you describe what the camera is like?
That camera is the size of a big refrigerator and it's housed in wood and it's quite beautiful actually but very rickety and fragile.
Only five such cameras were originally built. When Wegman worked outside, he hauled the huge camera in a truck. The large sheets of instant film could be viewed immediately. So Wegman could make then changes to his dogs or the set. The catch is that there's no editing or touching up the photos later so if there was a blemish, Wegman either lived with it, or didn't display the photo. Wegman took about 15-thousand photos with the Polaroid, many stored here in his studio. He recently went through every box, cataloguing and digitizing each image.
And the process was pretty amazing because I've seen each dog get younger and younger. The next wave of dogs. And it was really moving.
The project took more than a year, and Wegman discovered photographs he'd completely forgotten about. Many had never been shown.
Here's something that I'm slightly embarrassed about, but.
Why are you embarrassed?
I don't know dogs in sunglasses, it's a cliche.
Do you try to avoid cliches- is that something you struggle with?
You know I was really tortured by the thought of doing those sort of Poker Playing dog kind of things that sort of kitsch. I wanted my dogs to be- they could be funny but they had also had to be beautiful and more mysterious even when I made them tall as people.
This is kind of funny I just noticed that but there's a reflection of a dog in that can you see that? That's pretty amazing.
You didn't you didn't notice that before.
No I never noticed that.
The rediscovery of these original Polaroids became the catalyst for Wegman's latest book. Some of them are also on display in a New York gallery until the end of this month. More of his work will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in January and a major international exhibition will launch next summer.
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Megan Thompson shoots, produces and reports on-camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her report "Costly Generics" earned an Emmy nomination and won Gracie and National Headliner Awards. She was also recently awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship to report on the issue of mental health. Previously, Thompson worked for the PBS shows and series Need to Know, Treasures of New York, WorldFocus and NOW on PBS. Prior to her career in journalism she worked in research and communications on Capitol Hill. She originally hails from the great state of Minnesota and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a MA in Journalism from New York University.
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