Man Sniffs Flowers

American photographer and artist William Wegman is famous for making humorous portraits and videos of his beloved Weimaraner dogs. Turns out the whole family has a keen sense of smell.

I was fortunate to interview the famous artist for the second in our series about the power of flowers and the memories they evoke. Shown here the delightful photo “Sightly” 1999 by William Wegman.

What is your favorite flower?

I do dislike gladiolas because I always associate them with funerals. I worked at a gladiola farm in the summers when I was 14,15,16—weeding them and pulling out rocks—and the people that owned the gladiola business I worked with were excited when people died because that meant that business would be booming! I grew up in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, a small town near Springfield. My father’s best friend developed lots of strains of gladiolas and I used to go to all the exhibitions…and I do like them.

When was the first time flowers made an impression on you?

I’ve always loved lilies of the valley. My grandma, whom I was very close to, lived a raspberry patch away from us. I used to have breakfast with her every morning in her little patch of lilies of the valley, so I would associate them with a grandmother I really loved. It was the look and smell and the white bells and this old Victorian white house they lived in.

Have you used flowers in your painting?

My wife, Christine [Burgin], is a plant person and is obsessed with it. When I’m struggling to figure out what to do, she’ll sometimes bring down plants and say, “Try this with the dogs.” I’ll try it and it always works out.

Have you noticed if the plants have any effect on the dogs?

Yes. My second dog, Fay Ray, wouldn’t pose with an office plant that was at the Polaroid studio. She’d veer away from it as far as she possibly could. It was a very sturdy plant you see in an office building. She did not like it at all. It was her size, so maybe she didn’t want to share the studio stand with her. I am always used to bringing dogs up on pedestals, so that they would be the same height as the Polaroid camera. The first time I dressed a dog, I had an aversion to it. I didn’t want to do those cute dress-up things. I remember I was wrapping some fabric around my dog to make a column of color, and my assistant, Andrea, was steadying Fay, to keep her safe there, and suddenly it looked like Fay was talking to me and gesticulating with her arms. I thought this was so weird I had to do it.

Being Human by William Wegman, published by Chronicle Books

Do you have gardens with your house upstate?

My wife is a fanatical gardener. We have lots of gardens in our house in Maine. I’ve had the house for 15 years and have started to add to it. We’re up there a lot. It’s amazing. The main house is an old lodge that was built in 1889 and then added to in 1920. People came and checked in and had dinner there. The help lived in the back part of the building. It was a 20,000-foot log cabin. We own buildings that the owners lived in, too. And the guide lived with the barn that had horses.

Where do you most like to paint?

I love to paint in Maine, where I can see the lake and I can hear the wind off the lake through the windows and the skylights. It’s really wonderful.

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