(American, born 1943)
Rocks and Stones (puppies on rocks), 1992
Museum purchase with funds provided by the 1072 Society, 2011
By Dennis Harper, curator of collections and exhibitions
Upon first glance these large-scale, horizon-less photographs of rocks might be regarded in much the same way one might examine a modern diptych painting. The overall pattern of repetitive shapes rendered with just slight variations in color is a handsome close encounter with the natural world. But then it dawns on you: some of these rocky forms are not at all what they appear to be. There are soft vulnerable puppies randomly placed among the rubble, creating something akin to a photographic Where’s Waldo puzzle.
William Wegman began to photograph his first Weimaraner, Man Ray, shortly after he brought home the six-week-old puppy in 1970. Since then he has continued to use a successive family of Weimaraners as his models and his muses. When May Ray died in 1981, it took six years for Wegman to decide to adopt another dog, which he named Fay Ray because of her elegant demeanor. Since her passing, the artist has worked with one or more of Fay’s descendents to create a memorable body of photographic work.
Because we are delighted and charmed by the unlikely antics of these dogs, which Wegman often poses in costume, we might mistake the images more as parody than high art. This interpretation would be far from accurate. Using a large-format camera, and working with a variety of processes that include Polaroid, Type C and now digital, Wegman’s art is ultimately about transformation. He is masterful at taking what we think we know and showing it to us as something we might otherwise have never considered. Wegman fully understands the nature of photography and how its product is more often thought of as a document rather that an invented image. His generation of photographers challenged traditional assumptions about the veracity of the photograph by manipulating their images. In this case Wegman has used the most unlikely of associations to achieve his intent, through the incredulous comparison of soft puppies and hard stones. The humor and magic of this work make the very complicated ideas inherent in conceptual art photography accessible to, and appreciated by, a wider audience.