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Behind the lens with the acclaimed ‘dog guy’

Five pieces of cotto salami lie in a white dish against a black speckled background. A hairy outstretched hand sporting a ring on its index finger reaches for a slice of the sausage.

The image, constructed and then captured by pioneering artist William Wegman in 1970, transformed his appreciation for still photography and shaped his ongoing love of photographing dogs on boats, in dresses and even covered in flour.

“I wanted to build something that you couldn’t create through the lens,” he told roughly 300 students, faculty and staff who filled Blackman Auditorium on Wednesday evening for a lecture on his illustrious career. The event was sponsored by the Department of Art + Design in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

Wegman, 68, moves fluidly among various media. Over the last four decades, he has commissioned magazine shots; created television segments for Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live; and designed children’s books revealing tongue-in-cheek portraits of town and country life.

But he will be remembered primarily for photographing Weimaraners, the most famous of which he named “Man Ray” in honor of the artist and photographer.

Man Ray, Wegman explained while flipping through a slideshow of his work, was a “dreamy dog, one who did romantic things and took romantic pictures.”

His obsession with photographing Weimaraners — curled up in boxes, say, or dressed like Little Red Riding Hood — grew out of an innate interest in trying something that has never been done before.

“They became a blackboard that you could write anything on,” explained Wegman, who has become known as the “dog guy.” “They had quirks that you could explore.”

Art professor Mira Cantor alluded to Wegman’s genius in a series of introductory remarks, noting that preeminent artists take risks and “discover new truths that may not be self-evident.”

Wegman, she added, “continues to challenge and test himself and has created some of the most important works in the history of contemporary culture.”

Nathan Felde, the newly appointed chair of the Department of Art + Design, compared Wegman’s artwork to postmodern literature by novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino.

Like Calvino and Vonnegut, Wegman, Felde said, “embodies what it means for art to be at the center of life.”

Wegman’s series of compositions involving Weimaraners, he added, “gives us a chance to reconsider ourselves while looking into the infinite goodness of the eyes of the dog.”