American artist William Wegman is internationally-renowned for his peculiar large-scale Polaroid photographs of Weimaraners. He first started taking pictures of his beloved canine models in the 1970s when he and his wife picked out their first dog, Man Ray. What follows is Wegman’s account of his Weimaraners and how their relationship began and evolved. William Wegman: Improved Photographs Exhibition Opens May 12 at the Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center.
I didn’t really want a dog. I was too busy being an artist. But my wife did, so I promised her that when we got to California we would get one. I was hoping she would forget. It was a long drive to Los Angeles from Madison, where I had been teaching in the art department of the University of Wisconsin, but she didn’t forget. When we arrived we decided to look for a Dalmatian. We couldn’t find one. Apparently there was a Dalmatian shortage in 1970. Someone said Weimaraners were good dogs. I had never heard of them.
We chose our six-week-old Weimaraner puppy from a litter in Long Beach, California. Sitting there in the dining room in a ray of light, he looked like a little old man. Except for a big case of chewy-itis, there was nothing puppylike about him. I named him Man Ray. The first thing I did when I got Man Ray home was to take his picture: on the bed; deep asleep, a sock on the bed near him. There was a similarity between this sock and Man Ray. Man Ray looked like many things. This idea grew on me.
But Man Ray had some problems. He followed me everywhere. Everywhere. Outside, inside, in the kitchen, to the bathroom, to the bedroom . . . and to the studio. I was constantly trying to quiet him, to keep him from emitting his annoying high-frequency whine. He was very clever at getting attention and he was starting to take over. Man Ray learned, for instance, that if he hovered over a glass coffee table with a boulder in his mouth, he would have your complete attention. Some of my students in the art department strongly suggested that I get rid of him. They could see what I couldn’t: Man Ray was running the show.
Only in the studio, when I let him work with me, was Man Ray well behaved. No high-pitched whining there. He was calm and attentive, while posing for pictures and performing in live video pieces. There was something reassuring to Man Ray about the ordeal of setting up the recording sessions with the video camera and the tape deck. I had a hard time getting things to work. Those early machines were much more clunky and demanding than current models. Setting up light, props, and the stage, as well as the serious tone and focus of it all, contributed to the high-mindedness of the endeavor. This stuff must be important to Bill, thought Man Ray. Ray chanted the way I thought about my work. I became more and more attached to him.
In his eleventh year, Man Ray became gravely ill. One day he suddenly collapsed during a walk. It turned out he had pancreatic cancer. I thought that I could prepare for the inevitable by looking it straight on. The large format Polaroids from that year, which included Dusted and the life-size portrait heads of Man Ray, are to me the most profound works of our photographic relationship summoned. Some are portraits of a dear friend, others are more like posthumous commemoratives. However, this work would not prepare me for the loss I was to experience. Man Ray died in 1982 in his eleventh year. I was devastated. I vowed that I would never get another dog.
I didn’t know Fay Ray as a puppy. She was six months old and almost fully grown when I met her in April 1986, in Memphis, Tennessee, five years after Man Ray’s death. I had just given a slide lecture about my work to students at Memphis State. A woman in the audience came up to me and said she loved my pictures of Man Ray. She bred Weimaraners and offered me one of her puppies. ‘I’m not going to get another dog,” I said. “How about tomorrow,” she replied. “Just for a visit . . .”
A month later, a Weimaraner puppy was on my bed in New York City. What a beauty! Cinnamon Girl, as she was called, had a beautiful body, feminine and strong. She looked like she had wandered out of a Rousseau painting. Those luminous yellow eyes. And she had a pedigree. I renamed her Fay. Fay Ray.
I had no interest in using Fay as a model. I had already done that with man Ray. Of course I took Fay’s picture, but only family snapshots, and then only a few times. One August day while in Maine, I took my photo equipment – tripod, meter, Hasselblad camera – and Fay down to a small stream not far from my cabin. I bought along a few props, including a Wonder Woman outfit. There, in the privacy of our own secluded sanctuary, I posed Fay on the bank of the brook and dressed her in the costume. She remained perfectly still while I set up my camera on the tripod, read the light meter, and composed the shot, a process that took more than a few minutes. I could see her peering intently through the holes in the mask. She looked happy and proud. It’s about time, she seemed to say. Aren’t you William Wegman, the dog photographer? The picture wasn’t memorable, but the experience was affirming.
When we returned to New York in the fall, I began to work with Fay at the Polaroid 20x24 Studio with the camera I had been using since 1979, the very one I used during Man Ray’s last three years. At first the session was kind of spooky. I was haunted by the memory of Man Ray. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to step back and see how different Fay was from Ray that I began to lose my inhibitions. Fay was young, vulnerable, feminine, mysterious – a thoroughbred beauty, and the way she inhabited the picture was strikingly different. Ray was stoic, passive, noble, and wise. Fay’s yellow eyes lit up a photograph and her sculpted body graced it in an altogether new way.
Once I started with Fay I never stopped to question our work together, and it really took off. One day< I put Fay on a stool to give the illusion that she was tall. I dressed her and gave her arms. Actually they were my assistant Andrea’s arms, long and graceful. They fit her well. Now Fay had hands to hold things with. She had gestures to go with her new tall look and her powerful gaze. Fay had become more Sarah Bernhardt than Lassie.
I got to know more about Fay through her puppies. When Fay turned four, I decided to breed her. Virginia Alexander, a well-known Weimaraner expert, recommended we breed Fay to her dog Champion Lauden burg Arco von Reiterlm (also known as Arco), a German-born Weimaraner male. First we had to get permission from the German Weimaraner Club. Had Fay won any shows? What championship rings had she collected? Any belts? Had she this or that certificate? We sent a resume of her museum shows and a list of the public and private collections in which she was represented to Germany, and this amused them enough to approve the breeding.
Fay pregnant was not the prettiest sight. She was usually a sleek, elegant creature. I don’t think she liked putting on weight. I wondered what kind of mother she would be to her puppies. Would she ignore them . . .pretend they weren’t hers? I could see Fay behaving in that way? To me, Fay was part Greta Garbo and part Joan Crawford.
In anticipation of Fay giving birth, we left New York City and moved to my house in upstate New York. There are a lot of things to worry about when your loved one is expecting. I was sent the recommended whelping books by Virginia, and I started to build a whelping box. Normally a Weimaraner’s gestation period is 63 days. When the time is near, the dog’s temperature will drop suddenly from the normal 101°-102°F to 97°-99°F. One of the books recommended that the dog’s temperature be taken on the fifty-sixth day so that you can get absolutely, totally, and completely ready. I did. The thermometer read 97°F. I took it again: 96.08°F. Fay was shivering and acting strangely. We were on the big couch, out on the porch. It was Sunday, June 10, 1989, at about 2 P.M. Suddenly, she hunched over. I looked at her behind and saw a gray-black rubber balloon nesting there. No, not nesting – it was oozing out and there were little tiny feet inside it. Frantically I called the vet. “Thank you for calling. The office is closed. Office hours are 9-6 Monday through Friday and 9 to 12 on Saturday.” I left a message anyway and dug out the books.
As I was reading, Fay left the porch couch and made her way onto the living room couch, the sac with the tiny feet hanging about 1-3/4 inches out. It seemed to be stuck. I gave a careful pull and out slid Chundo. I recall saying, “Oh, my God!” five times during this event. I broke the membrane sac encasing his head. His eyes were closed, and he was completely still. The diagram on page 285 showed how to jump-start the newborn by using the swinging method. This was not easy. The sac was extremely slippery, but I managed to do so as the book instructed twice . . . three times. Some fluid came out of his nose and then, suddenly, I heard a squeak! I beamed proudly and presented him to Fay. She began to care for him, licking, cleaning up, and eating the placenta. Fay was a mother.
Next came Battina, head first, and I performed the same procedure, clearing her lungs using the “swing” method until I heard the life affirming squeak. She looked a little like a bat and was one-third the size of Chundo.
Two more puppies arrived, one after the other, both twice as big as Battina but not as big as Chundo. The first, Crooky, had a crook in her tail and a little crooked white line on her chest. The other I named Glenn after Glenn Gould. His ears stuck out. I gave the puppies to Fay and they nursed happily, piston-like, except for Batty. Shew as too small. I propped her up in front of the fullest nipple and braced her feet with a brick wrapped in a towel so that she would not slide away.
I wasn’t exactly ready for this occasion. Fay was a week ahead of schedule. My handyman-special whelping box was still in the basement, completed but at the moment unobtainable. Fay seemed quite happy there on the couch. What a picture! I fumbled around for my camera and took some photographs, barely bothering to focus, and guessing at the exposure setting.
Within an hour another two puppies arrived, numbers five and six, and twenty minutes later numbers seven and eight. Not until much later that evening was number nine born. He never got his strength and did not make through the following day.
And that was it. Nine puppies: two girls, Battina and Crooky; and seven boys: Chundo, Glenn, Blaise, Ken, Speedy, Art and Number Nine. I set up a postal scale with a little shoe box on top to weigh them and monitor their growth. Chundo was the heaviest at 12 oz.; and Battina was the lightest at 4 oz. All the rest were between 7 and 9 oz. I noticed in the photographs that Battina was always next to Chundo. They were together in the birth canal, too, and to this day are still close. I wonder if any of the others buddied up. I didn’t think to look for it at the time.
From William Wegman Puppies (Hyperion: New York, NY, 1997)