October 29, 2014
Text by Robert Kiener
At his home in Maine, William Wegman shows why worldwide acclaim for his art goes far beyond his iconic Weimaraner photographs.
Every artist needs a muse. Picasso was inspired by Françoise Gilot (among others), Paul Gauguin by his Tahitian beauty Teha’amana, and Andrew Wyeth by Helga Testorf. William Wegman, the multifaceted, world-famous artist and photographer, is no exception.
As Wegman lunches with a visitor at his Maine lakeside retreat, several of his beautiful, trim muses sit nearby, their big eyes following his every gesture, their floppy ears listening to every word. Suddenly, he tosses a piece of ham on the floor and they all scamper, their toenails skittering and scraping along the weathered pine floor as they tussle for the treat.
“Weimaraners,” says Wegman, with only a hint of a wry smile, “make beautiful models.” As one of his four-legged muses ambles over to lick his hand, he adds, “But they’re always hungry.”
To his legions of devoted fans, William Wegman is largely known as “the dog photographer.” His droll photographs of the charismatic canines—all his and all Weimaraners—often dressed and posed in humorous and outrageous situations, have been featured in dozens of books and scores of one-man shows.
His photographs and artwork are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and more. But the tousle-haired, self-effacing Wegman, a native of Holyoke, Massachusetts, is more than a dog photographer. As one New York Times art reviewer noted, “Mr. Wegman is one of the most important artists to emerge from the heady experiments of the 1970s.”
The key word here is artist. Although he has carved out a successful career as a photographer, he is also a much-admired painter. He produces drawings and videos, too. His films and videos have been featured on Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, and Nickelodeon.
As Wegman shows off the cavernous, 10,000-square-foot former lodge that he calls home every summer, he points out several paintings that he describes as “works in progress” in his spacious, light-filled first-floor studio, formerly the lodge’s kitchen. The large-scale, colorful, collage-like works feature vintage postcards; Wegman uses them as a starting point, painting around them to incorporate them into a scene. “I love prowling through Maine to find these lovely old postcards,” he says. Painting, he reveals, is his first love and the reason he went to the Massachusetts College of Art in 1965 and earned an MFA from the University of Illinois in 1967.
Wegman spends part of the year in a New York City apartment that he shares with his two children, his art-book publisher wife, Christine Burgin, and their dogs. He often retreats to this place in western Maine. “My work seems to be freer up here, compared with my work in my New York studio,” he says.
As if on cue, his famous models come charging into the studio. “That’s Flo, Topper, Candy, and Bobbin,” says Wegman. He picks up Topper and sets him gingerly on a high stool to illustrate how the dog loves to pose. “He’s a natural model and likes to work,” the artist says. “Each of the dogs has a unique personality; some like to pose, others not so much.”
Wegman has come to terms with what some have called “Wegman, Inc.,” the ever-expanding universe of calendars, children’s books, T-shirts, posters, prints, videos, and more, all of which feature his iconic Weimaraners. He confesses he once “felt nailed to the dog cross. I used to feel hemmed in by the ‘dog photographer’ label, but I’ve gotten over that.”
Then, almost as an aside, he adds, “Truth is, I’m not really a dog person.”
He’s kidding, right?
“No, I’m serious,” he explains. “For example, I don’t like little dogs or anything doggy. Weimaraners aren’t really doggy. They are dogs, but they’re not doggy dogs.”
He turns to Flo, Topper, Candy, and Bobbin, who seem to have been hanging on his every word. “Let’s go, guys,” he says. “Time for a walk in the woods.” •