They're classic fairy tales with a different pedigree

September 15, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

William Wegman is talking from his house in Maine, and so are his dogs. Periodically they erupt in background cacophonies of barks and yelps, their contributions to the interview. Wegman has often said that he began photographing dogs because his first Weimaraner, Man Ray, insisted.

Man Ray died in 1982, but later Wegman acquired Fay Ray, who by and by had her own litter, and this morning there are 10 dogs at the Maine house. No wonder Wegman found fairy tales as a way to use more than one dog in his photographs -- the recently published "Cinderella" and the soon-to-appear "Little Red Riding Hood." An exhibit of photographs from both books begins a national tour at the Baltimore Museum of Art today.

"I wanted to do a children's book," Wegman says, "because I had started to do [videos] for 'Sesame Street' and I became startlingly aware that I had a new audience. It occurred to me that there hadn't been, as far as I knew, many photo-illustrated children's books.

"Fay had a litter in 1989, and I had a whole new cast of characters to watch. I was struck by how different their personalities were -- Fay as the mother eternal, Battina [a female of Fay's litter] incredibly sweet and sad-looking." And so of course Fay plays the wicked stepmother in "Cinderella" but, being versatile, also the fairy godmother. Battina plays Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, and her brother Chundo the prince as well as the wolf and the woodsman. Wegman believes in what he calls "casting to type.

"I noticed from the beginning that my work was different from Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, where you had a generic shepherd or collie, though I'm sure each one who played that role was an amazing, wonderful dog. My dogs are playing a category of character based on their own personalities. I could never have Battina playing the wolf or the prince."

But, Wegman acknowledges, it isn't all the dogs. "A lot of it is our interpretation, and the camera angle. The things that are around the dog have a lot to do with what you feel about the scene. [The dogs] have a range of emotions, but I [also] catch the illusion of the emotion. Chundo is an incredibly sweet, loving dog; the wolf was a challenge, and required some dental work [long fangs]. Fay, whenever you put a wig on her, she looks mean."

Looking at the results, it's possible to think these are composite or retouched photos, but Wegman assures that they are not, though sometimes the finished product required many takes. The hardest one, Wegman says, was of the six puppies, as horses, pulling Cinderella's carriage. The older dogs will sit still -- literally -- to be dressed up and posed. They even seemed to sense that this was a story they were doing.

"I think in a way that they know this is their stool that they sit on for this shot. Fay really loved the shot where she was in bed all day playing the grandmother [in 'Riding Hood']." A few shots, however, proved impossible. "I couldn't get the prince and Cinderella dancing -- they looked too frumpy."

Wegman researched the stories from many versions and rewrote them with two collaborators.

Wegman, 49, also works in other media, including painting and drawing, but the dog photos continue to be important to him. He plans more books, though probably not more fairy tales. "I want to take advantage of my dogs and the periods that they go through. Batty [Battina] isn't going to be a juvenile forever. A dog's life is so short and I'm now blessed with amazing dogs; not to take advantage of that would be very sad. I can't count on always having geniuses."

On Sunday, Oct. 17 William Wegman will give a slide/video lecture, "Relatives of Cinderella," at 2 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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