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 in his subtly having left traces of the fact that many of the pictures were made in a studio, his images also parody many kinds of magazine photography, from dog food ads to high-fashion shots.
Perhaps the most spectacular parody is “Brooke,” where Man Ray has been outfitted with designer bluejeans, which barely stay on his rump. Trailing his hopelessly unsnug Ralph Laurens behind him on the floor, he glances back to beckon us on, the way Brooke Shields and every other female and male model of jeans has for the past few years. Wegman’s pictures seem to rib, too, the solemn masterworks that some fashion photographers take when they’re doing their own, noncommissioned work, such as Irving Penn’s glacially pretty portraits of tribesmen in mud masks, which were taken in an old-time, traveling photographer’s portable studio.
But what a viewer feels most strongly in these pictures is the relationships between a photographer and a sitter that have been conducted before a camera. Wegman and his Weimaraner began working together, on staged photographs and videotaped performances, in 1970, the year the dog was born. In his introduction, Laurance Wieder says that Wegman initially had no intention of using his pet in his art. The puppy—Wegman bought him for $35 in Long Beach, California, and at first wanted to call him Bauhaus—simply barged into the setups. He howled and sulked when he couldn’t get before the camera. The color photographs in Man’s Best Friend, which were made between 1979 and 1982, with a large-format Polaroid camera, mostly at Polaroid’s studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are the last phase of that partnership. (Man Ray died in 1982; Man’s Best Friend is dedicated to him and to the American Surrealist painter and photographer he was named after.) The pictures may make you think of some of photography’s most celebrated collaborations, especially Alfred Stieglitz’s many portraits of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Richard Avedon’s portraits of his father, Jacob Israel Avedon, seen in the few years before and then right up to his death. Wegman’s pictures suggest a little of both of these partnerships. The portraits of Man Ray seem to be a record of a courtship and also of a less charged—but possibly closer—relation between members of the same family.
Yet the odd thing about these photographs is that, after I spent time with them, it was Man Ray whom I continued to think about and who was real for me, not Wegman. I felt I could describe Wegman’s humor and his art tistry, but he himself never became someone I thought I knew, and that put a damper on the pictures. The tension of an artist’s mind at work can’t be sensed in these images, and so it’s possible to love them, and to find that they set off more associations in your mind than many photographs (or paintings) do, and yet also find them only the beautiful shell of someone’s feelings. Something raw and urgent is missing.
Wegman is in his Polaroids, of course, but in a very submerged way. Wegman likes puns and he enjoys making words and images play off each other. The titles of his individual pictures often add a mysteriously necessary concluding note, and he may have intended his book’s title to read as a concealed, inside-out message, too. “Man’s best friend” is dog, but Man Ray’s “best friend” is Wegman. It’s as if the book were indirectly a portrait of William Wegman, and as if he were the dog—the steadfast, mute one.
Wegman’s earlier work with Man Ray wasn’t deeper than these Polaroids, but, partly because Wegman himself was often in the photographs and videotapes, his relationship with his dog was clearer and his art was less muffled. There are a few of his earlier photographs, which are in black and white, in Man’s Best Friend and a larger selection in Wegman’s World, the handsome catalogue for a traveling retrospective that Lisa Lyons organized for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. (It opened there in December 1982.) Many of Wegman’s videotapes were also on view at the show.
Seen now, Wegman’s work of the early and mid-Seventies (the work by which he first became known) brings back, almost intact, the moment when Minimalism, Conceptual art, and the latecomer in that time of elegant severity—Process art—were all on the scene at once. Part of what made his videos and earlier photographs absorbing was that it was hard to tell what he thought about those movements. Whether starring Man Ray or himself alone, or both together, his pieces appeared, at first sight, to make a mockery of the selfconscious restraint and the underlying presumption of the time. He caught the early Seventies’ way of announcing that the truly advanced artwork was no more than a document of an act or a gesture. His videos, without being sluggish themselves, had a perfect molasses-slow, instructive pace, and his photographs had a perfect Spartan bareness. If you didn’t see that their content was often a subtle jumble, you might have thought them excellent illustrations for a how-to manual.
Wegman was more than a humorist in these pieces, though; his art had more emotional levels than most parodies do. In his mid-twenties when he began making them, he was a young artist who unquestioningly wanted to work in the traditions of the most challenging art of the moment, and, seemingly overnight, without having to go through any period of awkward maturing, he mastered the look and style of that moment. There were times when he seemed almost chained to the Minimalist and Conceptual ideas he was working with. The viewer didn’t have to know much about those ideas, though, to feel that there was something held down about Wegman.
In some of the tapes, he faced the camera head-on and addressed us directly, as if in character. He spoke spontaneously and haltingly, the way someone would talk to you at a party, and yet, in retrospect, his chats had the completeness of formal soliloquies. With his straggly, shoulder-length, red-blond hair, which often resembled Little. Lord Fauntleroy’s and usually appeared to be a bit oily, Wegman played a vaguely anxious hippy who did what he assumed society and his parents thought he should do, and, in the process, kept getting himself twisted and skewered. In “Deodorant,” he demonstrated a new deodorant that he believed was an excellent product, except that you had to spray it on for a while—like for a couple of minutes. He goes on talking calmly about how effective it is, meanwhile turning his armpit into a frothy swamp. In “Rage & Depression,” he was a guy who had to undergo shock therapy because he was so angry at everybody. The problem was, when the doctors put the electrodes on his chest he started to giggle and the giggly expression became frozen on his face. He says he’s still depressed, but now, with his permanent smile, everyone thinks he’s happy—which makes everything weirder and worse.
Wegman wasn’t only a counterculture nice guy; there was something likably sneaky and withheld about him, too. He was often seen wearing a jeweled ring on his index finger; it was surprising, because he hardly seemed to have anything of a pasha (or a biker) in him. The ring suggested that there was a budding sensualist in him, waiting to come out and take over, and that there were reserves of power in Wegman that he wasn’t fully aware of.
Not exactly a dropout or a rebel, a mouse or an impresario, but a little of all of these, Wegman was a beautifully blurry foil to the razor-sharp presence of his costar. In those works, Man Ray was a piece of undiluted sinewy muscle, a generally silent animal who occasionally let out startling, loud barks. He was keener, leaner, and sexier than his owner. The young Ray’s almost frightening eagerness to participate comes across most clearly in the videos, where he is in action, but it is there in the still photographs too, where his face is rarely seen close up—just his flabless body effortlessly perched in uncomfortable and preposterous positions, sometimes on wood boxes that are too small to hold all of him.
In a video entitled “Duet,” we watch him and another, less avid Weimaraner intently looking at something that, in the course of the piece’s few masterfully prolonged minutes, slowly goes up and down before them, then to their left and to their right, then suddenly around them, then up and down again, over and over. (What the dogs are watching, and what we in the audience don’t see until the very end, is a tennis ball. Seeing the ball is actually an unnecessary and deflating touch.) In “Duet” and, less spectacularly, in almost every other piece, Ray acts as if he were in a trance of obedient behavior. He’s like a model for ads for a dog obedience course taught by a madman. Ray’s powers of concentration are so developed they’re funny; they’re as scary as a cobra’s, too—they hold out a promise of something unknown and deadly.
In the color photographs in Man’s Best Friend, the tables are turned. It’s Wegman, the unseen author of these spotlessly clean shots, who is felt as the lean, sinewy, precise one, and Man Ray who is sloppy, fallible, and human. By the time Wegman began photographing his pet with Polaroid’s large-format camera, Ray had lost his taut, naked-seeming good looks. By dog years, he was almost in his seventies. His coat had gone from being silvery-tan to silvery-brown, and his eyes—once spectral and amber-gray—had become dark and absorbent. They no longer appeared to bore right through what they were trained on; they now seemed to be appreciating what they saw.
In the process of aging, Man Ray had become something less—and more special—than a Weimaraner. The star of these photographs is slightly muttlike, more of a basic dog. And Ray’s being such a basic dog is better. These pictures are so elegantly lighted and composed and so witty in conception that if their star had been a fine example of an unusual breed they might have seemed tricky or coy. They might have been too similar to the chic fashion stills they often kid. Ray’s rounded, monumentally ordinary presence, though, gives them a weighted and gentle center.
Looking at Man’s Best Friend with Wegman’s earlier work in mind, a viewer may feel that, over the course of years, Wegman gave up a part of himself to Man Ray. It is as though Wegman couldn’t stand being the experimental, uncertain, vulnerable fellow he was in his earlier work, and so he merged himself with his commandingly thoughtless, always assured partner. Wegman isn’t a naive or a folk or a primitive artist, but when he was working with his dog in these Polaroids he operated with the same freedom that self-taught artists often have. It is a freedom that comes from being oblivious of the world—of what other people might think. In some way, Wegman’s Polaroids are contemporary equivalents of primitive and naive paintings. The photos have the same becalmed, somnambulistic mood that Henri Rousseau’s work does, and Wegman’s color recalls Rousseau’s, too. Enamel dense and satiny, Wegman’s generally dark blues, reds, and greens have a once hot, now cooled-off lustrousness; they’re like the colors of cars at night in the tropics.
Wegman’s freedom lets him get right into his dog’s mind, and look out from it. Probably no one has gone to the lengths he has to poke fun at and to appreciate the thing that distinguishes dogs and isolates them from all other animals (and which we tend to forget, especially if we don’t own one). That is, their affecting, dopey, baffling, and constant—and, because of that, sometimes infuriating—friendliness. People who have been irritated by these pictures probably haven’t had dogs, or are basing their protective feelings on memories of having had them when young, and can’t enjoy the satisfying way that Man Ray isn’t—and is—being used in these photos. Far from having to submit to something, Ray is being given the chance to fulfill one of his biggest needs. Sitting for Wegman’s camera, he gets to keep his master under constant surveillance. For him, the photo sessions may have been a bit like a stretched-out version of the crazed and blissful moment in a dog’s life when his master picks up his lead, the metal clasp clinks, and he realizes that he’s going to be taken for a walk.
Wegman is getting even with Ray, too, of course. That’s why these photographs have more layers than Wegman’s earlier work. Then, he surrendered himself to a brilliant pet, a puppy genius who took over the show and needed the scantiest material to build up an act. Wegman and Ray were more purely collaborators in their early pieces. In Man’s Best Friend, though, Wegman is the director. He is more consciously in awe of his dog’s acting capacities, and he has more reason now to push Ray around. Anyone who has allowed himself to become seriously involved with a canny and demanding dog, especially a large-sized and quick-witted purebred, one with a more human tempo than small dogs have, knows he has fallen into a trap. He has learned to read the signals in the animal’s eyes, and, in the process, has made an emotional contract with the animal. The contract can be broken in a second, in a way that a relationship with a person or a child usually cannot; yet a relationship between a dog and a person who gives himself to a dog’s soft eyes generally has a stifling closeness, because there is no room for argument or change or growth. Turning Ray into a tart (in “Louis XIV” and “Royal Hawaiian”) or a housewifely char (in “Tall Dog”), Wegman, on some level he himself may not be aware of, is slapping his dog for having sucked so much time and energy out of his, Wegman’s, life. On a still deeper level, Wegman seems to be slapping himself, too, for having fallen for Ray.
The strongest images in Man’s Best Friend seem to be pulled from this underground terrain, where dogs, the most domestic and tractable of all animals, have a psychological power that no other animal can match. In the pictures where the camera gets to within inches of Man Ray’s face, and his eyes look up into ours and appraise us with a stare worthy of Iago, Wegman suggests the insidious side of a dog’s ceaseless desire for closeness. These images feel as if they come from Ray’s depths, and as if Ray, speaking for all dogs, says, “We know you—we always have.” In these close-ups, and in the pictures of his bowed head and especially in “Dusted,” Man Ray is as much of an individual, a presence we feel we know, as any animal in the history of art.
“Dusted” is the single most powerful image in Man’s Best Friend. It encompasses the silliness and sadness in the many different kinds of Man Ray portraits, and goes off on its own orbit. Ray sits at a medium distance from the camera, and, looking off to the right, seen almost in profile yet presenting a full, clear view of his overall body, he is being rained on by flour. Coming down from some source outside the camera’s range, the flour has covered almost all of him and is sprinkled, in starlike puddles, over the floor in the foreground.
Ray is once more being made a fool of, but this time it isn’t so funny. Absorbing the image, we become angry at Wegman. We feel that he has gone too far—that Ray isn’t participating in the joke, that he doesn’t understand what’s going on. Yet these responses fade away after a while; being dusted comes to seem an ennobling act.
“Dusted” is the picture that loses least when it’s reproduced in black and white; yet, in its color, it is one of the most subtle of the photographs. There is an ethereality to the powdery, bubbly flour and to Ray’s chalky tan coat; the very dark background, which may be black, has a penetrable, night-sky quality to it. “Dusted” seems to be composed of living black and white, and that matches the picture’s spirit, which is of parting and farewell. (It is the last plate in the book.) The photograph might almost be showing the end of one life and the beginning of the next—the moment that Man Ray has died and is being taken up into the light. Working with his dog for so many years, Wegman may have felt he was under a spell. He may even have wanted all along to create an image that would express that spell—the attachment he and Ray had for each other, which continually prompted Wegman, in one cycle of work after another, to release more of his talent. Whether or not he wanted to create such an image, no other picture shows how much his dog meant to him as “Dusted,” where Man Ray has turned away and gone on to something else with the same abrupt simplicity with which he usually wanted to participate. The picture makes it seem as if Wegman’s many thoughts about Ray had always been leading up to the moment when Ray would finally leave him.