Annie Nocenti and Nick Scoullar visit with artist William Wegman
and his model dogs, Battina & Fay Ray.
Who would believe I would meet an artist with as much talent as William Wegman. As I stood outside ringing his bell, I got excited when I looked down at my feet and noticed dog prints in the cement by his doorway. I walked into his East Village home and was blown away by huge pictures of dogs that covered the walls.
First his assistants took us out into a straw covered backyard and introduced us to the stars: Fay Ray and Battina, beautiful weimaraners in two shimmery shades of beige. We played ball and snapped some pictures. They must be used to that.
William Wegman, these dogs' best friend and the subject of our interview, is a famous artist whose works hangs in museums, rides around the city on sides of buses, and fills books and magazines. He takes wonderful pictures of his dogs dressed as elephants, couch potatoes, fairy tale characters like Little Red Riding Hood, and now they even make all the letters of the alphabet!
Bill showed me a room with towering, very organized stacks of photos in boxes. His photos are huge, 20" x 24", taken by a five foot tall, 235 lb. giant Polaroid camera, so big it must be rolled around on wheels. To take a picture, Bill and the dogs have to go to the camera, and there are only five in the world!
When did you decide to be an artist?
When I was a boy, I was interested in drawing and painting. My high school teacher encouraged me to study art. I did, for many years until I finally graduated with a Master's degree in painting.
When did you switch to photography?
During the sixties I became part of a movement against traditional art. I wanted to bring art to the people through photography, video cameras, and television.
And when did you start taking pictures of dogs?
I started taking pictures around my house, and naturally used my first dog, Man Ray. I really liked the way the photos came out, and my dog also loved being part of my work!
Where did the name Man Ray come from?
Man Ray was named in honor of an artist who died in 1976. He was an American artist who lived in Paris in the twenties. He was a Surrealist artist.
Sadly, Man Ray the dog died too, in 1982. His spirit lives on in the many photos Wegman took of him and in the book, Man's Best Friend.
So you got another dog?
Yes, I found Fay Ray, my second dog. I was able to make Fay "stand tall" so she could be photographed as a human.
At this point, Bill went to the refrigerator, where he hides one of his important "tools of the trade", the squeaky toy. This one is a frog, and he demonstrates how he alerts Fay's attention, and she stands tall for us. Later on, she chewed the frogs legs off! Yum!
What are the most important tools of your trade?
Imagination, and a good eye!
What do you do when you aren't taking pictures?
I like to fish, play tennis, go to the movies, and listen to music.
What are you working on next?
A series of photographs called The Adventures of the Hardly Boys. In it, the dogs get to spend a lot of time in the country and it's sort of a take-off on the Hardy Boys Mysteries series.
Meeting with William Wegman taught me just how versatile and hard working dogs can be. No wonder we call them "Man's Best Friend."
Check out interviewer Nick Scoullar's cartoon, Fuzzy, and his cool t.v. show, Anti-Gravity Room, on the sci-fi channel.
- first published in the May/June 1994 issue of ZuZu