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Man's best subject

It happened by accident. Photographer William Wegman's Weimaraner kept interfering with his work, so Wegman aimed his camera at the dog. The rest is art history.

By MARY EVERTZ, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2001


photo
[Photo: William Wegman]
William Wegman’s Weimaraner photographs, like this one, Reader, have made him and the dogs world-famous.
Thirty years ago, a large, grayish-brown dog changed William Wegman's professional life.

Since then, the artist has immortalized the Weimaraner breed on film and made himself and "his dogs" internationally famous.

Through his photographs, books and videos, he has made his "Wegman dogs" and the big, velvety Weimaraners one.

Two related exhibitions highlighting aspects of his work open to the public Saturday at the University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa.

Wegman has been characterized as a "postmodern conceptional humorist," recognized not only for his dog portraits, but also for his performance art and many books and videos. His venues range wildly, from the Whitney Museum of Art, to Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live, to the Sundance Film Festival, to TV ads for Honda minivans.

Three of his major works, paintings of natural scenes he describes as "semi-abstract and massive" (about 10 by 30 feet), can be seen at Citibank at 55th Street and Park Avenue in New York.

Wegman, 56, is married to artist Christine Burgin. They have a son, Atlas, 6 (he was named for the label on his prenatal sonogram), a daughter, Lola, 3, and two Weimaraners. In a recent phone interview from his New York studio, he was friendly and chatty, inviting a reporter to bring her own Weimaraner to the "family day" at the USF museum on Sunday, where he'll meet fans and sign books.

With a degree in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and a master of fine arts degree in painting from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Wegman started painting. But 30 years ago, he says, the message in the art world was "painting is dead," so he started working with video, installation and photography.

His rambunctious Weimaraner Man Ray kept getting in the way.

"He'd crash and wreck it. I tried tying him up at first, but he'd start whining and I couldn't concentrate, so I let him go. I'd just aim my camera, and he and I would have a little fun," Wegman recalled.

Today, Wegman works with his two dogs, Battina, 11, and her son Chip, 5, plus Chundo and Crooky, Battina's siblings, which live with Wegman's sister in Maine.

Most of the time, the dogs lead a dog's life. "They go for walks, sometimes they sniff old friends, sometimes we have to cross the street to avoid dogs they don't get along with," he said.

The dogs pretty much call the shots, though they really do wear those outfits (they open in the back for easy dressing).

"I don't really do anything that a dog can't or doesn't want to do," he explained. "The misconception is the dogs are going against what they normally do. Dogs are attached to people unless they gang up with each other in packs. . . . (The photography) gives them contact with me for long periods of time."

When the dogs aren't posing, they are playing with the kids or sleeping on the Wegmans' bed.

The trick to his photos, he says, is a little illusion and a little magic.

"Weimaraners have always been objects of transformation," he said. "Sometimes I'm looking at the way light falls across their bodies. The way the lenses open up to them, transforming them into landscapes, cliffs, making them appear to be something other than they are."

PREVIEW

An exhibition of photography by William Wegman opens to the public Saturday and continues through March 17 at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. "Family Day" and book signing is 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Wegman will give a lecture at Tampa Theatre at 7 p.m. Feb. 15. Tickets are $5 through Ticketmaster. For information, call the museum at (813) 974-4133.

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