“Gray Spirits”—Why Artist William Wegman Began Photographing His Dogs

As part of the Guggenheim’s Robert Roseblum lecture series, renowned artist William Wegman presented this engaging, humorous talk at the New York museum last month. Wegman is, of course, best known for his images of Weimaraners, and the lecture, documented in the video above, starts off with a collection of video works, some of which feature the dogs. In one piece, two of the animals move their heads slowly in tandem, following a ball off-screen with a mesmerized dual gaze. The video conveys the playful spirit that has characterized Wegman’s work throughout his long career.

Wegman relates how he first came to work with Weimaraners after moving to California in the 1970s: “I got this dog, and he got into a lot of pictures,” he says, speaking of his first dog, Man Ray. “He seemed to have an affinity for the camera, but more importantly to me [he] was sort of minimal looking, because I still considered myself a minimal conceptual artist.” He goes on, “To this day, I photograph these gray spirits because they are sort of mutable and ethereal and conceptual.”

Wegman delves into his practice more generally, exploring how he moved to photography from painting, and explaining his early process: “I would usually make little drawings on typing paper, and then set up the photograph. I didn’t go around with my camera, looking through the lens, and finding interesting things to photograph. I always worked in the studio.” With a large-format Polaroid camera, he ventured into color photography in the late 1970s, and concentrated on Man Ray as his subject. He notes that these photographs ended up being “beautiful” a word that, as he puts it, “wasn’t in my manifesto” at the time.

Throughout his presentation, Wegman shares his wry wit, paired with a sense of joyful inventiveness. As he says about the creation of one of his early works, “It’s just going there, and trying things, and you don’t believe what you can do.”