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Set Click Gone: William Wegman Talks to Jason Landry About His Life With the Dogs

On an overcast December day, I took a bus from Boston, Massachusetts to New York City to interview artist William Wegman. I rang the buzzer outside of his home and studio in Chelsea and then proceeded up the stairs. Greeting me were four full-grown shiny, silver coat Weimaraners, galloping toward me at full speed — their barks echoed incessantly to alert the owners. The two younger dogs, Topper and Flo, were rambunctious and playful, jumping on me — their front legs and paws stretched onto my shoulders. When they weren’t attacking me they would be taunting the older dog of the house. Eventually, they all calmed down once Bill tossed a handful of treats onto the floor — they were like children scurrying around picking up candy after someone broke the piñata.

JASON LANDRY: Describe an ordinary day in the life of William Wegman.
William Wegman: It has to be dominated by dogs, since there are four of them and they need to be fed and walked, so that starts the day. As far as work goes, I have to do some ordinary stuff, like tend to emails. Photoshoots tend to be scheduled in advance; I have my own studio downstairs. Recently we did a project for a magazine, and there were a lot of props involved. The young dogs that I have need to work, and I’d like to keep that going. Whenever the studio is available we’ll just run down and do stuff. I’ve been photographing the two young dogs in action play fighting – they look like wild beasts! The problem is, when we’re down in the studio and have the photo lights on, they behave too well and stop playing. So, I need to figure out how to get them to act natural. I guess this is an age-old problem in photography – how do you restage ‘action’ to have it look spontaneous – from war photographs, to just any kind of action shots. To get back to your question, lately I’ve been painting a lot with these postcards extending the edge of the images, and that’s a daily activity that goes on throughout the day when I’m not taking photographs.

JL: You live in NYC for most of the year and Rangeley, Maine in the summers. What can you do in NYC that you can’t do in Maine and vice versa?
WW: I don’t have the access to my staff that is here in NY when I’m in Rangeley. They usually run the equipment, and when I’m there I’d have to arrange for people to come up. Back in the day, before digital, I used to photograph using a two and a quarter negative, and could develop the film myself. Now with digital, I can’t really do it myself, I probably could, but I chose not to, because there are so many options. I tend to bring smaller things up to Maine that I can be working on, such as text for a book.

JL: Do you approach photography differently than you do with your paintings?
WW: Yes, I do, and that’s evolved and changed over the years. When I was working with the Polaroid 20×24 camera, up until a few years ago, that was a very, very different way of working that I felt was more like how I made my videos, and that was very different from how I worked with the two and a quarter format twin lens camera. In the beginning and in the early 70s, I would make sketches, little thumbnails of what I wanted to set up. With the Polaroid, I learned to bring a few props and just fool around, start staging things there on the spot. I might have an idea, but would be very willing to abandon it in favor of something else. And that’s how I pretty much worked with video.

JL: And with your paintings, I see that you’re doing a lot with postcards. Where did that idea come from?
WW: It came from a nature book that I made on the parody of nature in the early 90s. On one page of this book, I extended some Rangeley postcards so that they met up with each other. I didn’t think that much of it, it was kinda part of my collage thing, I think it came out of what I used to do with my own photographs – I used to alter and paint on them. So this was just a variation of that. I used to do it with greeting cards. There was this evil impulse to change things – to sabotage the greeting somehow – to make the greeting card say something that it wasn’t intended to. So it comes from that spirit. There was a point when I switched from working on paper to working on wooden panels. I would temporarily stick the postcard up and begin exploring the connections with that postcard with another one.

JL: What is the first photograph that you remember seeing?
WW: That one’s locked in the past. I grew up during World War II – my father was a P.O.W. actually. I didn’t see him until 1945 after he was liberated. I’m sure the war photographs, the pictures of my father that were shown to me – one day I’ll meet him or not – so it was probably family pictures of my father in the Air Force. I remember seeing one picture that I’m still pretty attached to of my father reading to me and my two really pretty cousins when I was around five or four – it’s a classic staged photograph. We weren’t from a family who had cameras, so we’d have to arrange for pictures. Some families in the 40s and 50s grew up with cameras – we weren’t one of them.

JL: So, that first staged photograph – do you think it has anything to do with the way you stage things now-a-days, both in painting and photography?
WW: I think so, possibly also my connection with nature since I grew up in rural Massachusetts, not suburban. I grew up in a quarry town where there were these fantastic places to swim and explore and I was always in the woods building huts and rarely slept inside. I liked to fish and I had a dog and a paper route. It was sort of a classic, almost a Norman Rockwell but more rural version of that. My abilities in painting were recognized early on. I was known as ‘Billy the Artist’, and that is why I went to art school. I didn’t really take photographs until way after grad school because my roommates were Art Sinsabaugh and Robert Cumming, two really great photographers, and we used to argue whether photography was art or not and I was on the nay side of that. I certainly did reverse my opinion.

JL: So you went from painting to video to photo – do you remember the first successful photograph that you ever made?
WW: I certainly do. I had been making photographs at first to document some of the installations and performance-type pieces that I was doing. But I remember thinking, gee, what I am doing is staging photographs and became aware especially when I began influencing how they turned out. I took one photograph that I titled Cotto, it was a picture of my ring finger reaching into a plate of salami, it was graphically very striking and it was also kinda strange, the idea of meat and design were kind of fused in that picture. It jumped out at me and gave me the courage to do these just as photographs – stage things just as photographs, which was new at the time. It probably had existed in my world, in Bruce Nauman and other things that he was doing. I don’t claim to be the first, but for me it was something that I discovered.

JL: What did your parents think about your career as an artist? Were they supportive? Did they get it?
WW: I’m not sure they got it, but were very supportive. I did very well in art school and kept getting scholarships, which made it easy on them. We weren’t from a very wealthy family; I worked to put myself through school. I was a night watchman and did all kinds of crazy jobs. They were very proud of me. I was the first of our family to go to college, so it was a big deal.

JL: How many Weimaraners have you had in your lifetime?
WW: I think I’m up to ten now. The first one was Man Ray – I got him in 1970 and he lived until 1982, and then got Fay Ray in 1986. I lived three years without getting a dog. I didn’t want to repeat the Man Ray experience – that was perfect. I got Fay because there was something kind of haunting when I first met her in Memphis, Tennessee. I couldn’t get this amazing face out of my head – I didn’t think that I would be photographing her, but eventually I did. John Reuter at Polaroid invited me to the studio to try her out, and she loved it! It was a huge event for both Fay and I. The next stage was when she had puppies – she had a litter of eight and I became very close to three of them. Her daughter Battie is one that I kept, her son Chundo went to my sister and I continued working with her, and the other girl, Crookie, went to the Rangeley dentist and I worked with her. So those three plus Fay, so now we’re up to five, and then Battie had a litter that produced Chip. Chip had a litter that produced Bobbin, Bobbin had a litter that produced Penny, which involved Candy, and now I have two more, Flo and Topper, who are not related to the Fay line. Bobbin is the end of the Fay line.

JL: How do you know when it’s the right time to bring another dog into the family?
WW: Last year one of the dogs, Penny, came down with lymphoma. She was having chemo treatments. She was eight years old. Chemo is very successful for lymphoma, but it only gives you a year of life at the most, otherwise you get maybe fifteen to twenty days. We met Flo from a breeder in Syracuse, and she was offered to me, and everyone thought that it would cheer everyone up, including Penny, which it did. When Penny passed away, I was left with two old dogs, Bobbin and Candy – they were 12 and 10, and Flo needed someone to keep up with, so we got Flo’s half brother Topper. Topper is Flo’s dog…they play constantly. Both of these dogs love to work.

JL: From the photos, most would think that your dogs are the best-trained dogs in the world. Do you have a specific routine in the way that you train them?
WW: As you know very well, they aren’t trained at all – they are wild and crazy. They like me. They like to see what I’m doing; they like to be around me. It’s kind of a work ethic. When I’m down in the studio they like to be involved. With Flo, she got to see Penny working when we were doing the National Geographic cover. She would sit right next to her. When the strobe lights go off it’s very Pavlovian if you then say ‘good dog’ rather than hitting them. It is something that becomes positively reinforced. Someone said that I train them using my hands. And it’s true, I’m always holding them or touching them or moving them into position, rather than using voice commands.

JL: Do you think the dogs know when it’s time to work?
WW: Absolutely. When we used to go to the Polaroid studio, they walked a mile to work through all of these parks. They got to see their old friends – we probably worked at Polaroid every other week for a few days -we were regulars, but not a constant thing. It became special. The dogs were elevated, especially at the Polaroid studio where the dogs were on a platform that was brought up to the level of the camera. They like being tall. The studio is a special environment.

JL: Which one of your dogs was the hardest to work with, and which one has been the easiest?
WW: I think Candy because she is the most agile, but not the most attractive (sorry, Candy). She’s a phenomenal spirit – she loves to work, but only for a second. You get everything all set, and you’re about to click the shot, and she’s gone – I’m done. I figured out that I could work with her doing action shots, and that has really led to a change in my work. I’ve done pictures where she looks like she is doing handstands or flying through the air, or doing these incredible balancing things – so I’ve found a new way to work with her. With the younger dog Flo, she’s a very dominant alpha female, she gets very jealous when working with other dogs. She commands the space.

JL: Some artists have been noted as saying that their artwork changed once they had children. Did you see any change in your own art after you became a father?
WW: I re-edited all of my children’s books when they were reprinted to be much shorter because I realized that you read children’s books to get your child to go to sleep – you don’t want to be up half the night reading a book! I did children’s books a few years before I had kids. I did them because I was asked to do them, and they became fun. They were a project, and I’ve always been better at projects than if I was left to my own devices. I remember these art classes in college at MassArt. I’d always do better stuff in the illustration and design classes than I would in my own painting classes.

JL: On your blog you often post “While On Hold” sketches. Do your sketches come from the topic of discussion that you are having on the phone, or are they just random?
WW: I guess I don’t really know. I usually start with a hook nose, because there was a certain point in my childhood when I realized that I have a funny nose and when I was a kid I used to draw Indians with hook noses, and I didn’t have one of those, so every one of my profiles has a hook nose on it.

JL: You have undoubtedly been interviewed many times and answered many questions in your lengthy career as an artist. What’s the one question you hoped someone would have asked you by now?
WW: Any of those types of questions when they say, “Do you have anything else to say?” I really don’t have anything to say. I like the response to a question, rather than thinking about one on my own. Right now I’m thinking, God, I can’t wait to go up to Maine to go cross-country skiing with these dogs so I’m not constantly entertaining them. Last week, I was thinking about college because my son just got accepted to college. That was the biggest thing – where was he going to go to school.

JL: What’s been the best bit of advice that you have received in your lifetime?
WW: “You otta go to art school.” That was from my high school art teacher and she recommended that I should go to MassArt. And I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t go. I wasn’t very good at pumping gas, and I wasn’t smart enough to go anywhere else. It was a totally wonderful decision on my part. I’ll be always thankful to Mrs. Laramie from Classical High School for saying that you should go to art school.

William Wegman was born December 2, 1943 in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He received a BFA in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1967. Wegman’s photographs, videotapes, paintings and drawings have been exhibited in museums and galleries internationally and nationally. Recently, a retrospective of his work traveled to museums such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and others.

Jason Landry is the owner/director of Panopticon Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts. Established in 1971, Panopticon Gallery is one of the oldest fine art photography galleries in the United States specializing in contemporary, modern and vintage photography. Prior to acquiring Panopticon Gallery, Landry worked at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University in various capacities and was a member of its Board of Directors. In keeping with the gallery’s core focus, Landry regularly attends portfolio review events and photography art fairs both nationally and internationally, has juried group exhibitions, and has lectured at regional and national art colleges and universities. Landry received an MFA in Visual Arts from The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and a BFA in Photography from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He and his wife Anne are avid photography collectors and he is a Corporator on the Board of Directors for the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Massachusetts.