William Wegman wishes people wouldn’t refer to him as “the man with the dogs,” but it has to be admitted that he’s better known for his photographs of his silvery Weimaraners than for the rest of his considerable body of artwork. He wrote a string of children’s books in the 1990s illustrated with photographs of the dogs dressed in costume-box capes and hats, their blue eyes always focused on something far away. Now he’s back with Flo & Wendell, a goofy, winsome sister-and-brother story, the first of a number of books he’s signed on to do with Dial. PW talked to him by phone at his summer house in Maine, where he takes long walks with the current crop of Weimaraners – including the irrepressible Flo, who plays herself in the book, and Topper, the real-life model for Wendell.
How did the characters of Flo and Wendell come together? Did it take a long time?
I did the Wendell character first – that shy-looking guy in the yellow shirt that’s the first picture of him in the book. The Flo character took forever. One or two images came first, and then these really long and crazy stories followed that. I wrote at the computer, whacking away, and I had really a lot of fun. There were friends that came to visit them and fairy tales Flo was reading to Wendell. There was a friend named Meg who loved gum, so her name is “gum” spelled backward, you know – even though it isn’t. The fairy tales were going to be embedded in the story, and I named characters in them by banging on the keyboard randomly – like there was one was named CHRTGNA, and she had a whole family. CHRTGNA! We loved her. And there were these bugs that I had, little puppies with bug wings.
But I ended up having to lose them all. It was sad to suddenly not have them in the book. That’s always the way it works, even in my own paintings. You have to know where to edit.
You’ve recently exhibited paintings of postcards that have been “extended,” where you take the scene in the postcard and continue painting it on out beyond its edges. In Flo and Wendell, instead of photographs of the dogs, you see the heads of the dogs and below them, figures painted with gouache – they’re these really funny, dumpy-looking creatures. Are they related?
Oh, yeah. I wouldn’t have thought of doing Flo and Wendell that way if I hadn’t been working on the postcards. That’s where the idea of extending imagery comes from, and the immersion in paint rather than photography. I stopped doing children’s books for quite a while. I think that was good. When I came back to it, I could go about it in a different way. And I had had a brush in my hand very recently.
The first pictures I did for Flo and Wendell were outlines. You could see the paws of the dogs. When I started painting figures over the images, though, it really came to life in a new way. And the dumpiness has to go along with that. I’m not that good a painter, so when I paint, dumpiness comes out.
With this way of doing it, though, one of the questions is, what’s your attitude about hands? Are they going to have hands, or paws, or Mickey Mouse hands with three fingers? The hands do make a gesture when the dog appears to be saying something. I wanted the arms, and the gesture, but I didn’t want the detail – how many fingers there were and so on. So I just decided to blur it.
It’s a classic-looking book, with elegant type and design. The figures of the dogs are often seen against a clean white backdrop – that seems new.
It’s not just white! There are lots of different kinds of paper and different tones of white. The tone isn’t just the white of the paper. We went back and forth with proofs quite a bit.
My wife [gallery owner and publisher Christine Burgin] has made books for New Directions. She’s done some really great books, some award-winning books that she’s done on her own. She’s very, very knowledgeable about type. We all liked a classic, or older, look. We went to look at Books of Wonder, which is a bookstore down the street [from their studio in Chelsea], they’re friends of ours. They have a big collection of new books and old books – we went and looked through them and thought a lot about design.
My wife is a fierce editor. Anything too dark she doesn’t like – if the colors are too dark or if it’s got too evil a theme. But she has a strong sense of design. Jason, my studio assistant, does all of the graphic things. He re-photographs paintings and sets them on paper so I can look at them again. My wife and Jason especially have hilarious arguments about the way things look. Emily [another assistant] more nurtures the writing. A lot of times I’ll email her a whole bunch of stories. She’ll say, this one’s really good. I really like this. Then when I get close to finishing something she’ll suggest that I expand this part or that part. I like that she doesn’t close things off. I hate being closed off. I usually storm out of the room, or sulk.
I think that was appealing to Dial, to have this Team Wegman. I start the process but it really grows through all of us – hopefully in a satisfying way for everybody who’s working on it. It’s a struggle, but it’s a fun struggle. Dial was really impressed that we already had in place a mechanism for advertising through the blog and the Web site. We had a meeting with them, and there was my wife, Jason, and Emily, my kids who are 18 and 16 – everybody was there with something to say and there was no hemming and hawing.
And of course, Dial is involved [in the creative work], too. Nancy [Conescu, the book’s editor] is the one who thought of the name Wendell when we were throwing out different names. Jason will work with the designers. Our group works with their designers.
What were your favorite books growing up? I know about the Hardy Boys! [Wegman’s loopy parody, “The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold,” filmed with an all-dog cast in 1995, pays homage to the series.]
I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s, and there was an innocence to books then. I remember reading the Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia, articles about Indians, rock formations, landscapes, all that stuff. I read Grimm’s fairy tales, Andersen’s fairy tales; I can still see the green and red cover for those two books, they were a set.
And you’re working on more books for Dial, right?
The next books that come out from Dial will be two board books. The first one is a counting book called 3 2 1 Circus. It’s got a nice old-fashioned look. The second one is an early reader, a vehicles book. I’ve been struggling with the painting for the vehicles. They’re due next week.
And I’m writing a whole other Flo & Wendell story. You want it to be right. Especially now when I’m in the woods [in Maine], making pictures and stories – you can get kind of off. I like to get back to New York and see what things look like in my studio there before I show them to people. In New York there are white walls, and the work of other artists is around when you put your work up there. It’s like a gallery. Here there’s nothing crisp and white. Here I have plywood and wood walls. It’s the opposite of an art gallery. Interesting things come out in the woods, but maybe they should stay with you.
Flo & Wendell by William Wegman. Dial, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-8037-3928-4