Over the past 47 years, the artist William Wegman has owned 10 Weimaraners. Each silky gray dog has starred in Wegman’s photography, adorned in wigs, sunglasses, and heels, and dressed as characters ranging from George Washington to Mother Goose. These images were wildly popular in the ’90s, featured in calendars, television shows, and countless children’s books. I, for one, learned the letters of the alphabet with “Alphabet Soup,” a short film in which two of Wegman’s Weimareners cook soup (dressed, naturally, in aprons), while others elongate and contort their limbs into the ABCs.
Wegman did not set out to photograph dogs. According to him, he had no choice. Upon bringing his first dog, Man Ray, to the studio, the puppy demanded the center of attention. “He was impossible,” writes Wegman. “Except when he was in front of the camera — then he was different.” In the spotlight, Man Ray was as sedate and still as an object. Wegman’s experiments with his first dog were slightly tamer; he didn’t venture much beyond painting Man Ray’s nails red. It was the beautiful Fay, Wegman’s second dog, who took on the bolder challenges, balancing objects on her nose and sporting dresses. “Fay needed to work,” says Wegman. “She reveled in it.”
Each of Wegman’s dogs has had a distinct personality. A new book, titled Being Human, collects a selection of Wegman’s Polaroids, where we meet all the characters, including the serious Fay, the languid Batty, and the athletic Candy. In a surprisingly touching essay, Wegman describes his dogs as moody friends, loving companions, curmudgeons, impatient children, and workaholics. Indeed, there is something uncanny in how his dogs remind us of the people we’ve known, like the frazzled friend “Estella” or the mildly boring dude “Shawn.”
While the human props certainly help, the more time you spend with the photographs, the more you realize that it’s not the suits, hat, and robes you relate to, but the dogs themselves. The opening chapter, “Physique,” zooms in on their body parts; the waves of their chests, their bony legs, and their curved backs are as intimate and tender as seeing a naked human body close beside you. I admit I blushed.
“Wegman never had a doubt that dogs are people too,” writes the curator and author William A. Ewing, who selected the photographs for Being Human. “They are, indeed, people like us. And they, in turn, are people we like.”
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It was Wegman who inspired my sister and me to dress up our own Weimaraner, Ofélia. And yes, she was named after the tragic character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. My parents tell me they couldn’t settle on a name for her, so when a friend of theirs called the hyperactive and slightly off-kilter puppy Ofélia, it stuck. As fate would have it, Ofélia lost her husband, Quincas Borba, when he swallowed a rattlesnake at the age of two in the northeast of Brazil. (He was named after a different literary character, the canine protagonist in the eponymous novel by the great Brazilian writer Machado de Assis.)
There are a few reasons why Ofélia wasn’t the one who swallowed the snake. One, she was a lady, in the stereotypical sense — she did not appear to inherit the Weimaraner gene for hunting, preferring to eat our rice and beans over the mice we wished she’d caught. Second, she did not care for animals at all. In the park, she played with people, not other dogs. And she wasn’t the best at maternal instincts either — when one of her puppies tried to eat from her bowl of food, she bit its ear until it bled. Indeed, the only thing she perhaps preferred to people was food. Ofélia was no elegant Fay. She was overweight and had a stubby tail.
But that didn’t stop us from equating Ofélia with Wegman’s pantheon of lean, superstar Weimaraners. Flipping through Wegman’s photobooks was considered a family activity, and in each of those frames I saw Ofélia, dressed in boots or hiding in bowls. I understood that she was related to these dogs, and so we dressed her up like her brothers and sisters. When we wore glittery earrings on Christmas, she donned a (fake) pearl necklace. When we dressed as witches on Halloween, she wore a golden sequined skirt. She looked fabulous.
Ofélia loved to dress up. As soon as we pulled out the feathered scarves and bowler hats from our trunk of fantastical clothes, she sat tall and still like a sphinx. (The only accessory she absolutely detested was sunglasses.) Perhaps, as Wegman grew to discover, it is a Weimaraner trait to be a natural at modeling.
But Ofélia also enjoyed slipping her legs through the sweaters we held open because it felt like being loved. Wegman hints at this when he describes Man Ray’s early mini-tantrums in the studio: “He sensed that what I was doing was something of interest to me and therefore to him. He wanted in and he made that clear to me.” Similarly, Ofélia “wanted in” when she waddled over when we played, inserting herself into skits orchestrated by my sister, in which Ofélia and I were always assigned the minor parts.
Dogs, it would seem, are just as curious, bored, and excited by this world as we are. “Giving her lots to do took her mind off her anxieties,” Wegman writes of Fay, the workaholic. “What those were we will never know.” Perhaps the reasons aren’t so different than why children dress up and artists mull over their projects.
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I realized Ofélia wasn’t quite human when I felt like we said goodbye too quickly. She lived 16 years, which is a lot for a dog, but very little for a 10-year-old girl. Suddenly I was watching her age. First, it was the arthritis, then her fear of planes, and soon, the fake pearls and sequined skirts were replaced by a sad winter coat she wore in the south of Brazil, where she lived her last few months. We had to leave her behind, because she couldn’t travel across the sea, where we were moving our lives. Ofélia, we were told by my veterinarian uncle, was perfectly healthy but deeply depressed in our absence. It would seem she died of heartbreak.
In an interview with Erwig, Wegman talks about how he’s “always in a hurry” when photographing his Weimaraners. “Maybe because the dogs have such a short lifespan compared to us!” comments Erwig. “Yes, like the minute hand on the clock. You can almost see it move…,” Wegman responds.
Ofélia was the first living being I lost, and it was through her that I realized I would eventually lose others as well. In this sense, she very much taught me what it is like to be human.
With Ofélia, it was sometimes hard to tell who was imitating whom. As with any friendship, we wanted to empathize with one another — she wasn’t the only one who dressed like me; I would lie on my stomach and arrange my hands before me like paws. Dogs might be people like us, but if so, we are also dogs like them.
Being Human by William A. Ewing and William Wegman is now out from Chronicle Books.