Man’s Best Friend: Photographs and Drawings
Man Ray, the Weimaraner who is the star of William Wegman’s Man’s Best Friend, has one of the most intelligent, alert, and handsome faces in the history of photography. If he were a man, he might be a leader, a hero; the mixture of gravity and self-possession in his face would make men willing to follow him anywhere. What he does, in these large color Polaroids, is, at least at first sight, simply a still-photography version of what the dogs in the dog acts did on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” In these staged portraits, which occasionally include another dog or a person in the shot, Man Ray is an image of such self-contained attentiveness that he doesn’t quite seem to be a dog. The difference between this Weimaraner and the seemingly boneless spaniel that slipped and slid over the glassy floor on the Sullivan show, all the while keeping a patient and droopy countenance, is that Man Ray isn’t embarrassing. Like Buster Keaton, he may be permanently unarousable, but he never ceases to be potent. His virility, like the actor’s, is always felt; it is right there under the surface.
Man’s Best Friend may be the most original book of photographs since Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959). Like The Americans, it is a rarity in photography, a true book—an arrangement of individual shots that, taken together, enrich each other and leave a distinct, large impression. Frank’s realist photos, the product of a road trip through the country, have everything—every mood and time of day and type of person—all seen through disgruntled and sorrowful eyes. Wegman’s pictures have a more inward kind of everything. Simultaneously lush and surrealistic, silly and fairy-tale-like, they contain as many different moods and textures as a good variety show on a night when it surpasses itself. The images go from being brilliantly weird (with an undertone of something serene) to being unexpectedly romantic (with an undertone of something insane). They range from “The Kennebago,” where Man Ray, wearing an Indian feather headdress, is seen drifting by in a bright blue canoe on a lake, to “Double Profile,” where Ray holds his head over the shoulder of a striking big blonde, and together they gaze into the distance, a dark knight and his Rhine princess.
Practically each of the images in this beautifully printed and designed book seems to turn upside down, or poke fun at—or at least remind us of—something we have seen before. Essentially a series of impersonations by one dog (with wigs and makeup and costume changes and props), Wegman’s pictures come across as a collective takeoff on the most influential body of photographs of the Seventies: Lucas Samaras’s numerous Polaroids, in which from shot to shot he struck theatrical poses, mimicked various primal moments, danced as if he were Salome, and turned himself into a werewolf. In the pristine sparseness of most of Wegman’s setups and …