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William Wegman

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William Wegman
(Holyoke, Massachusetts, 1943 - )

Artist William Wegman has become a household name in American popular culture. He is best known for his photographs of his pet Weimaraner dogs and their puppies that appear on calendars, post cards, and posters as well as in books. However, to focus only on Wegman's work with dogs is to overlook his long and varied career as an artist. Wegman has produced works ranging from oil paintings to kinetic sculpture and videos in addition to his photographic oeuvre. Although categorized by many observers as "the guy who photographs the dogs" he is in reality a more versatile artist.

Wegman was born in 1943 in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He began painting and drawing at an early age, and after completing high school, he continued his art education at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston (known as MassArt). Wegman graduated from there in 1965 and immediately began graduate studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. While in graduate school he largely abandoned painting to take up film making, and his continued to make short films consistently throughout his career. After receiving his M.F.A., Wegman moved to Wisconsin where he worked as an artist and teacher for three years before relocating to the West coast in 1970, teaching at California State—Long Beach. In that year two important events occurred: he began using photography as his primary medium and he bought his first Weimaraner, Man Ray. (1)

Wegman's career development has demonstrated the influences of art both traditional and cutting edge. As a painter and draughtsman he created witty or ironic sketches that focused on word play or puns. He cites John Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and John Singleton Copley's Henry Pelham (Boy with a Squirrel) as inspiration, and he later praised Frank Stella's Minimalist works. (2) Once in graduate school in Illinois, he turned to making "kinetic contraptions," that is inflatable plastic sculpture accompanied by sound and light shows. (3) The focus of his work shifted again upon his move to California in 1970. There his work began to be more distinctly influenced by Dada and Surrealism, particularly in his black and white photographs of found objects that captured the spirit of playful irony seen in works by the Dada artists.

In 1979, Wegman was contacted by the Polaroid Corporation, and was asked to test a new large format instant camera. Although initially reluctant, the large scale photographic print would become the staple of Wegman's photographic work for almost thirty years. The subject of his dogs became integrated into Wegman's photography and his videos produced during the 1980s. He found the dogs were ready and willing participants as subjects for his camera and for filming, perfectly conveying the wry and deadpan humor that the artist had exploited in earlier photographs and films. In 2000, he began making Chromogenic prints. (The term "chromogenic" refers to a range of commercial color processing from negatives in which layers of emulsion sensitized to a primary color are printed.) In contrast to the large format Polaroid prints, the negatives for chromogenic prints were made with smaller cameras, which allowed Wegman to work outside of a studio. In these works his primary subjects are the Weimaraners and Weimaraner puppies.

Wegman's significant commercial success—his video Dog Baseball appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1986—has largely characterized his career. Beginning in 1989, he created video clips for the children's program Sesame Street that featured his Weimaraner Fay and her progeny. His publications, such as the children's book of 1996 titled Puppies, are popular best sellers. Although a multi-talented artist, it is the medium of photography that has brought Wegman public acclaim. This work has established his reputation as the artist who exploits the dynamic and complex relationship between man and his pets.

(1) Wegman's life and career are summarized in Joan Simon, William Wegman: Funney/Strange (New Haven: Yale University Press and the Addison Gallery of American Art, 2006).
(2) Simon, p. 30.
(3) Simon, p. 32.

Kate Lamar, 31 July 2007

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