Beyond Photography: Stew, meet William Wegman

You could be forgiven for wondering for a minute if you’ve wandered into the wrong blog. Read through to the end and it’ll make a great deal more sense, I promise.

Last evening (around the time that I’d normally be writing today’s blog entry, which is why this one is late), I saw the singer/songwriter/Afro-Baroque musician Stew at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. It was advertised as (and was, in fact) a night of songs from the musical Passing Strange, which Stew wrote in collaboration with Heidi Rodewald. I was curious to see how they’d manage to take music performed by a five-piece band and six-person cast at the Belasco Theater and translate it for a smaller ensemble in the more intimate confines of the Pub.

The whole thing translated remarkably well, as it turns out. This was partly because of Stew and Heidi’s talents as songwriters and arrangers, but it’s also due in no small part to an artist being willing to act as though his own back catalog is nothing sacred. The arrangements were turned inside-out, in most cases being miles away from what had been performed at the Belasco, and the show as a whole had less of a Broadway feel to it than an evening of cabaret. There were long discursive and digressive asides alongside the music (and sometimes in the middle of songs), and – just as strikingly – new lyrics to many of the songs that took them to places they hadn’t already been.

Alright, so what in the hell does this have to do with photography? I’m getting there. Give me a minute.
One of Strange’s many themes is the idea of the “Real,” the search for authenticity that nearly every artist (and probably any number of individuals who wouldn’t call themselves artists) goes through in forming and discovering their identity. “The real is a construct,” Stew sang in Passing Strange, and that’s something that’s probably worth keeping in mind, since authenticity generally comes best, and fastest, when you quit worrying about it and just be it. Sometimes this means being willing to go out on a limb with your craft, being willing to experiment; sometimes too, it means being willing to operate without a net, beyond the confines of what’s emotionally safe or comfortable. It’s easier to be true to yourself, and your muse, if you’re willing to ditch the way things have always been done, and not be worried what anyone will think as a result.

"Blue Period with Banjo," William Wegman, 1980

One photographer among many that I can think of who exemplifies that sort of approach is William Wegman. Like a certain songwriter, Wegman gets away with a lot in his work, but his fans – who, by this point, are legion – love him for it. Born in 1943, his early works consisted of conventional portraiture and video work. Acquiring his first dog, Man Ray, proved to be crucial to his work; Wegman’s Weimaraners have become synonymous with the artist.

Over the past few decades, Wegman’s work has evolved, expanding from 20×24 Polaroids to other photographic formats, and also incorporating video. His work has taken him to television (including multiple stints on Sesame Street, work for Nickelodeon, and an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), a residency at Phillips Academy, and exhibits worldwide, including the LA County Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Smithsonian. All the while, the subject matter – those expressive dogs and their creative collaborator behind the camera – have remained consistent, but it’s Wegman’s continual willingness to experiment that’s kept his work vital, and kept him from being a one-trick puppy pony. It’s also ensured that his work has gained quite the following, as his fans (not only those serious about art, but also those who may not give the art a second thought and just love the fact that some guy gets such amazing photos using little more than his imagination and a gaggle of dogs) have followed every permutation of the Wegman esthetic.

I didn’t hear a single complaint last night that the songs weren’t note-for-note the way they’d sounded on the stage or on the cast album; indeed, anybody who’s been a fan for any length of time would probably have walked away disappointed had that been the case. The point is that Stew and Wegman alike have carved out very individual, and idiosyncratic, voices. The fact that both have been true to their individual styles so stubbornly and for so long gives them a pretty wide berth to do what they damn well please. If you’re willing to stick your neck out and do that, your subject matter I think immediately matters a heck of a lot less; people will stick with you through all the changes because they understand where you’re coming from, and appreciate the integrity you bring to your work. So: follow your muse wherever she may lead you. Your audience will keep up.

William Wegman online
The official website of Stew and The Negro Problem
The video above is from Theater Talk, and features Stew and Heidi Rodewald performing “Work the Wound”