Throughout his career, William Wegman has drawn his strength from simplicity, both of process and intention. His work doesn't claim to espouse elaborate philosophies, and his photographs don't rely on heavy texts for illumination. Conceptual threads and cultural context weave in and out of his work casually. His most memorable works have relied on simple frameworks and concrete goals. For about 30 years, his beloved pet Weimaraner dogs have served as focal points for his creative efforts, and his videos and photographs of them have made him an international celebrity across diverse pockets of culture.
The Silver Eye Center for Photography's exhibition It's a Dog's Life offers up some of Wegman's brightest moments in collaboration with the inventors of one of photography's coolest cameras: Polaroid. By 1978 the company had developed one hell of a tool: the 20x24. It functioned like the hand-held Polaroid cameras we've all known and loved, except that it was enormous (Wegman likens it to a "refrigerator and a cello"), and instead of producing postcard-size memories, it created 20-by-24-inch photographs with incredible definition and color. Wegman was among the first artists Polaroid invited to its Boston studio to give the new technology a shot. Once he warmed up to its full-color spectrum, the artist and Polaroid's beautiful behemoth developed a creative relationship that would continue, intermittently, for 20 years.
In this exhibition, organized by the Polaroid Collection and Florida's DeLand Museum of Art, Silver Eye has filled its main gallery with some of the most beautiful and intriguing results of Wegman's collaboration with the company and his canine muses. The 20x24 ended up as a fitting analogue to Wegman's creative process. The instant development negates the possibility of post-production processing and fine-tuning, providing a firm restriction that ultimately drove the artist's flexible process into extraordinary territory.
The work is as much about his incredible pets as it is about Wegman; in many of the photos, the magic lies in the dogs' extraordinary ability (and willingness) to collaborate with Wegman, often twisting their bodies or balancing in delicate and tenuous postures. Wegman plants googly eyes on their heads, dumps pigments over their coats, cloaks them in elaborate fabrics, and even abandons them on a boat in the middle of a lake in Maine. Through it all, it is the dogs' steadfast dignity and commitment to these absurd endeavors that makes the photographs hilarious and beautiful.
It is tempting today to assume that some of the more audacious poses were aided by digital effects, but they're not: All of these photographs are originals, developed within 75 seconds of the shutter's click, and all visual stunts are the result of intricate, low-tech, real-world efforts by Wegman and his assistants to tease art out of a few dogs and a few props.
The sampling of Polaroid's collection on display here spans the years, reflecting the transformation of Wegman's interests and his pets over the course of his career. His dog Man Ray's declining health is conveyed with reverence in a few somber photographs that document the end of his storied career. We see Fay Ray in her prime, Wegman capitalizing on her sleek body and radiant skin. We see the dogs multiply into a family, challenging Wegman to develop complex compositions involving several animals at once.
What is not to like about Wegman's playful and passionate oeuvre? The Polaroid photographs represent him well. You will love this show, as will your friends, and your kids, and your local art critic. We'll all get something out of these photos, both superficial and profound. Nestled deep in his book about the Polaroid photographs, Wegman offers a statement that sums it up well: "I am never after meaning, per se, but sometimes it flickers by."
Tail-spin: "Stud 2000," by William Wegman.
It's a Dog's Life continues through Nov. 4. Silver Eye Center for the Photography, 1015 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-431-1810