L’oeuvre Photographique/Photographic Works 1969-1976, by William Wegman

Wegman cvr

This large-format bilingual (English-French) volume covers William Wegman’s early work and was published by Fonds Regional d’art Contemporain Limousin at Limoges in 1991 to tie in with an exhibition.  As well as an extensive selection of  black and white photographs it includes information on them, and there is a separate section of photographs of his beloved collaborator, the Weimaraner Man Ray (1970-1982).

Supplementing the images is ‘Eureka’ (a personal statement in which Wegman describes himself as having been ‘a 60s minimalist-conceptualist’ before experiencing an epiphany in the form of a salami); a selection of ‘Little Tales 1972-74’ (short anecdotes which may or may not be true); general information on his exhibitions and awards, and a bibliography; a listing of video work; and a lengthy and highly appreciative essay by Frédéric Paul, ‘Bill, William & Prof. Wegman – Fundamental Works: 1969-1976’.

The result is a very attractive compilation of the work Wegman produced as he was starting to make his name, and before he largely became best known for the kitschy output featuring his dogs.  Trained as a painter, he began his photographic career recording his performance art and temporary installations, before expanding his work in the medium, and then moving into video.

The photographs here are inventive, sometimes surreal, but with the art generally hidden under an air of spontaneity.  As is often said of Wegman, he is capable of balancing seriousness with humour and a philosophical approach with playing around.  A good example is a self-portrait (as many of these are) reading a blank ‘newspaper’.  We think we are finding out about the world, but really we are learning nothing (even more true in the fake news age).

A boy watching a TV near a group, the ‘picture’ on the screen a match of an individual sitting nearby, encapsulates the situation where the screen becomes a substitute for life; trying to read two books at once, as shown on the cover, is a perfect metaphor for a time of information overload; two people covered in sheets, one standing, the other bending down, look like ghosts having sex – is that unsettling or optimistic?

The playfulness can misfire or become obvious (M. Paul uses ‘didactic’ a lot).  ‘Paris in the the Spring’, familiar from the old perceptual test using the phrase in a triangle, here is replicated but with each word placed on the backs of chairs.  Unfortunately it is spoiled by showing another photograph with one of the ‘the’s reversed, in case we hadn’t got it the first time.   Wegman urinating into a bucket, his penis hidden behind a bowling ball (1970) is tame compared to Kurt Kren’s The Eating Drinking Shitting Pissing Film (1967).  Wegman is no Actionist.

Overall though, the pleasure is in watching Wegman just try anything that comes to mind, making this a valuable record of agile creativity grappling with the camera’s potential.  The results are never dull, even when they don’t quite succeed.  He is modest too.  A photograph of a drawing includes a basketball ‘to enhance value’, when I should imagine a Wegman drawing would be worth a lot more than the ball nowadays.  Anyone who finds the dressed-up dogs vaguely tiresome should seek out this book.  Many Ray is only one element of a wide-ranging exploration of the medium’s capabilities that is entertaining and often intriguing.

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