Fay & Andrea
© William Wegman
Courtesy the Polaroid Collections

It's A Dog's Life

by Monty Montgomery

ONCE UPON A TIME, in the very early 70’s, a young artist who had earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the Massachusetts College of Arts in 1965 and his Master of Fine Arts in painting and printmaking from the University of Illinois in 1967, and also had completed several university teaching assignments, decided to move even further west to California. While there, settling in Long Beach, his interests expanded into photography and the newly emerging medium of videotape production.

Then he got a dog! Not just any dog, but a very special dog: an elegant light rust-toned Weimaraner he named Man Ray (after the famed surrealist artist). Man Ray — the dog, not the man — turned out to be a super model (long before they were even invented) and went on to star in countless photographs and videos during his notable 12-year career of collaboration with his owner, William Wegman.

In time, after both man and beast moved back to New York City, the photographic works that resulted from their artistic collaboration, painstakingly achieved with consummate patience and effort, became so special and so celebrated that The Village Voice named Man Ray (the dog) ‘Man of the Year’ in 1982, the first and last time a creature of the canine persuasion was so honored.

Subsequently, in 1986, after Man Ray’s passing (you know which one I mean), a new Weimaraner, Fay Ray (named after King Kong’s favorite lass) and Wegman began another famous collaboration, one that was also recorded and retained for posterity on photographs from the extremely rare Polaroid 20 x 24-inch camera. This unique camera, measuring 5-feet and weighing 235 pounds produces extra large format ‘contact’ prints renowned for lush color and detail.

What’s particularly important about these prints is that they are one-of-a-kind. Just as with the Polaroid cameras sold to the general public in the ‘50s, 60’s, etc., the picture you shoot develops into the only image there is. Unlike most other photographs, where negatives can be reproduced onto an endless number of positive prints, there is no negative with a Polaroid 20” x 24” print. What comes out is the one and only positive print in existence. While that one positive print can be photographed for copying and reproduction elsewhere, there are no multiples, no ‘numbered limited editions’ of the original. There is only one ‘original’. And they remain securely stored in the Polaroid Collections, except when they are shown to the public as part of gallery or museum exhibitions.

Meanwhile, as female dogs often do, Fay Ray had a litter, then another, then another, etc. From those litters, the most talented offspring: Battina, Chundo and Crooky were chosen to continue in the family business, as were Battina’s son Chip in 1995, Chip’s son Bobbin in 1999, as well as Candy in 2000 and Candy and Bobbin’s daughter Penny in 2004 — thereby establishing a creative film reign rivaling the heritage of the Barrymore, Carradine and Fonda dynasties.

All of which brings us to the present.

The Von Liebig Art Center in Naples will be presenting a public exhibition of It’s A Dog’s Life: Photographs by William Wegman from the Polaroid Collections from July 12–August 3. Coordinated by the Museum of Florida Art in Deland, this traveling exhibition showcases 28 large photographs of Wegman’s long-tailed family taken over a 10-year period. Jack O’Brien, Curator at The von Liebig Art Center, believes that “Wegman’s subject matter appeals to a broad audience. His images of Weimaraner dogs are comical and immediately engaging for viewers. I especially wanted to have his work on display during ARTScool, the Naples Art Association’s summer arts program for children and teens.”

“Many children and parents are familiar with Wegman through his books based on classic tales like Mother Goose and his videos for ABC and Sesame Street, produced as a creative way to help children learn the alphabet. During the eight weeks of classes, ARTScool students will tour the exhibition and can then reference Wegman’s photographs in their own artwork. In addition, his exhibition will be of special interest to the photography students working in our darkroom.”

Of course, Wegman’s Weimaraner pictures appeal to many, many adults as well. Lynda Redfield, widow of Broadway Actor William Redfield, now living in Sarasota, was thrilled to learn about The von Liebig Art Center show: “His photos are wonderful, and I know his show will be well worth a trip to Naples. Every one makes you laugh or smile…and gives you insight to both animal and human behavior. He and his dogs’ works are incredible!” she says with high-level anticipatory joy, reflecting the mirth, wisdom and creative/technical genius that photographers, friends of animals and art lovers alike will find in Wegman’s photos.

As O’Brien states, “William Wegman is one of America’s most accomplished photographic artists. He is inexhaustible. His works proliferate and at this point in his career he is a household name.” He mentions a quote by The New York Times art critic, Robert Smith, who referred to Wegman as “… the most accessible and, in his own way, richly human of all Conceptual artists.”

Positive proof(s) is(are) available for all to see for themselves. According to O’Brien, “There are 27 Polaroid photographs in the traveling exhibition. One is a diptych, which simply means there are two photographs that the artist intends to be exhibited together, side by side, as one work of art. We will exhibit all 27 in our Frederick O. Watson Gallery. It is our biggest space and viewers will be able to see all the photographs in one long glance immediately upon entering the gallery. Viewers will be free to choose any of the photographs and start by moving in for a closer look. They can then move to the left or right to see the entire exhibition. It doesn’t matter which direction they take. There is no wrong way to look at the art. Any way they approach the works, is fine. They’re all pure pleasure, sheer enjoyment.”

So, for a really cool treat, one that will leave you with happy images you’ll remember for the rest of your life (with a smile and/or a laugh each time you think of them) be sure to see It’s A Dog’s Life: Photographs by William Wegman from the Polaroid Collections at The von Liebig Art Center.

And remember: No dogs allowed! Only people! •

from the July-August 2008 issue

The New York Times art critic, Robert Smith, referred to Wegman as "the most accessible and, in his own way, richly human of all conceptual artists."

Stud 2000
© William Wegman
Courtesy the Polaroid Collections

The von Liebig Art Center
585 Park St.
• Naples
Sunday 10am–2pm.