By 1973, he had moved to New York City with his beloved Weimaraner Man Ray, where their iconic video and photo collaborations further burnished Wegman’s status as an influential and original artist. His popularity soared in America and abroad. Man Ray, with his intelligent looks and astonishing self-possession, provided both a perfect foil and partner for Wegman’s imagination and unique sense of humor.
“The first time I met him was when he was six weeks. He really looked like a little man, and he was standing in a ray of light, and that’s why I named him Man Ray,” says Wegman. It still amuses him to think that their work together was the result of a happy accident. “I was just starting to take photographs. I was photographing the things that I would be setting up, and Man Ray would always get in the way and start chewing on [them]. He was interested in what I was doing. He became different when I pointed the camera at him, and what I noticed was how non-cute he looked, but more strange and intense. I was really interested in how he kind of modulated the space around me. Not just the space he was in.”
After 12 years of living and working together, Man Ray left an indelible mark on Wegman. When his beloved friend and constant companion developed cancer and died, it didn’t seem possible that another dog could, or should, become a focus of Wegman’s work.
In the wake of this loss, the artist retreated to Maine—as he had many times before with his canine buddy—to fish, hike and explore the woods. It was there, in 1985, that he rediscovered his passion for painting and drawing.
“I gave up painting in 1967 as a grad student and started again up here away from people. I didn’t really want people to know I was painting. I was kind of sheepish about it.” He began creating works based on imagery culled from encyclopedias and obsolete information—“faded culture,” as he calls it.
At the time, Wegman wasn’t actively seeking a new dog, but a chance encounter with an admirer of his work who also bred Weimaraners led to the discovery of Cinnamon Girl, a gorgeous puppy with round, yellow eyes whom he later renamed Fay Ray. “There was something about her look that really spoke to me. I was kind of obsessed. Almost like a man in love. It was like a boy and his dog with Man Ray, and then an artist and his model or muse with Fay.”
Wegman shot countless large-format photos of Fay using the unwieldy and complex 20 x 24 Polaroid camera, which he had employed earlier to great effect with Man Ray. Wholly different in her approach to the camera, Fay offered Wegman an electric energy and a willingness to take on what must have seemed, to a dog, like curious challenges. The unforgettable image of the Weimaraner standing tall on old-school roller-skates? That was the inimitable Fay. Her work ethic, combined with Wegman’s imagination, led to other unexpected and idiosyncratic works, such as his videos and films for “Sesame Street” and “Saturday Night Live.” Dog Baseball, shot for the latter on film in 1986 and featuring Wegman’s deadpan narration as well as Fay and a collection of canine friends, further expanded his devoted following.
Dog Walker, 1990, color Polaroid
Fay and her offspring—Battina, Crooky and Chundo— and their progeny—Bobbin, Candy and Penny—starred in a number of books and videos, many of which were based on re-imagined classic children’s stories, among them Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Mother Goose. Those works, with their lush sets, ornate costumes and more than a few crewmembers, were complex affairs and yielded some of Wegman’s most popular and memorable images.
In recent years, Wegman has moved away from elaborate, production-heavy projects, gravitating toward more streamlined, painting-centric work. Though his approach to his artistic endeavors is mutable, he currently spends 75 percent of his time painting and the remainder behind the camera.