Works by masters of the Polaroid — Wegman and Tomczak — at Leepa-Rattner

TARPON SPRINGS

William Wegman's large-scale Polaroid photographs of his Weimaraners are the popular draw at the Leepa Rattner Museum of Art right now.

Go enjoy them.

Then stay for another photography exhibition, Anna Tomczak's sumptuous, evocative works (also large-format Polaroids) in the adjacent gallery.

They are so familiar, there's nothing left to say critically about Wegman's canine chronicles, first begun in the 1970s with Man Ray and, several years after his death, Fay Ray and her offspring. They remain funny, poignant and technically excellent.

Wegman was a respected young painter and photographer who was experimenting with ironic videos when Man Ray entered his life, his studio, and, by Wegman's account, wanted to be part of the action. The dog was along in years in 1979 when Wegman began using the big new Polaroid camera the company had developed and invited him to try. Man Ray lived only three more years, but it was a rich period during which Wegman established a deep collaboration with the remarkable animal that made them both famous.

Wegman bought a female Weimaraner in 1986 and found her as willing a partner as Man Ray had been. She is more striking, with a lighter coat and soulful, piercing yellow eyes that Wegman uses to great effect. As her puppies grew, they joined their mother in tableaux in which the dogs wore clothes and were posed as humans (sometimes with humans who hid behind them and provided hands).

Wegman has created many works in which the dogs are used more as abstract shapes (the way Edward Weston used vegetables) that could be argued as more "artistic." Few of those are here.

Wegman has been an apologist for the series, saying he was not dressing up the dogs as stunts, that he always wants to capture their innate dignity. I believe him; the dogs themselves maintain their droll expressions regardless of their assignments.

There is no dishonor in becoming rich from the work. Calendars? Why not? But after a while the photographs become less about the photograph and more about the dogs. They're just so adorable.

A welcome component are some of William Wegman's videos, done with and without the dogs. Included is one for children in which the pack illustrates the alphabet in skits and poses. If it didn't win an award, it should have.

Tomczak is not a household name like Wegman, but if you visit museums regularly, you probably have seen her work. Like Wegman, she uses a large-format Polaroid camera. The two have a deeper connection, too: After seeing her hand-painted black and white photographs in 1993, he encouraged her to try the Polaroid using a technique called image transfer. It was a good suggestion.

The camera is a challenge to master because of its size, large enough to produce 20- by 24-inch photographs instantly. The negative is processed in the camera on chemically treated paper that, when pulled off, forms the positive image. Getting immediate results is nice, but it's really the special quality of the colors that makes the camera so attractive to artists.

Tomczak pulls the negative off before it transfers onto the photographic paper and presses it onto a wet sheet of watercolor paper. The resulting image has a gauzy look, as if layers had been built through many negatives instead of a single one.

She's good at gathering a lot of references in the montages and suggesting associations without being obvious. Orbits of the Planets, for example, takes its name from an old illustration she juxtaposes with a flower and butterflies, linking the astral chart to earthly migrations and rotations.

All have a thematic coherence, but the true pleasure is standing before them and soaking up the depth and richness of the photographs. Compare them to some of her early (smaller) tinted black and white photographs in the show and you appreciate Wegman's prescience and advice.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

It's a Dog's Life: Photographs by William Wegman from the Polaroid Collection,

and Sanctuary: Anna Tomczak Photography

The exhibitions are at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, 600 Klosterman Road on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College, through April 12. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, extended to 9 p.m. Thursday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors. Free Sunday admission includes a docent tour at 2 p.m.

Works by masters of the Polaroid — Wegman and Tomczak — at Leepa-Rattner 01/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 3:30am]

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