He was a lost ball of fur rescued from a ruinous future who went on to become the Internet’s first superstar and the center of a decade-long cultural discussion about aesthetics and the power of cute. Some hated him. Millions adored him. And to those people, photographer Lara Jo Regan has reassuring words.
Mr. Winkle is still going strong.
Regan, a noted documentary photographer, rescued the dog she later named Mr. Winkle from the side of a freeway near Bakersfield, California, 10 years ago, at a felicitous cultural and technological moment. The photographs she began taking of Mr. Winkle reached a fascinated global audience in an entirely new way—on the Internet. Mr. Winkle was arguably the Internet’s first superstar and original animal meme, the progenitor of all the viral cat photos and dog videos that now cause so many workers to waste so much time in front of their computers, thereby costing corporations millions of dollars in lost productivity. Perhaps the trouble with today’s economy can in fact be blamed not on the avarice of Wall Street or the specter of socialized medicine, but on the big round eyes of Mr. Winkle. Think about it.
Regan never meant for all this to happen, but, as we know now, the online world works in its own uncanny way to produce the unlikeliest of cult figures. As the Internet threatened and then strangled the print publications she once shot for, Regan turned to Mr. Winkle, creating hundreds of images featuring the dog in the kind of tableaus that William Wegman would certainly appreciate—some simply amusing, other inspired by 19th-century portraiture and 20th-century art movements. Like Wegman and his Weimaraners, Regan and Mr. Winkle found treasure at the border between kitsch and art. Eventually there werebooks—A Winkle in Time, Winkle’s World, What Is Mr. Winkle?, and, most recently, Mr. Winkle: The Complete Character Collection—and sensational book tours in which hundreds of people lined up to glimpse the tiny star in person. (The Mr. Winkle phenomenon was immortalized in an episode of Sex in the Cityin which the dog upstages Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw at her own book signing.) Besides the books, there were greeting cards, calendars, and exhibitions, the latest of which, titled “Mr. Winkle: Object of Projection,” opens today at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.
The show is a retrospective featuring 60 of what Regan calls her more “fine-art oriented” Mr. Winkle images. Curator Micol Hebron notes in her description of the show that Regan’s work explores how kitsch and ironic juxtoposition can incite a meaningful cultural dialog about empathy, projection, and human-animal relationships.
“Regan’s photographs of Mr. Winkle create an incredible gateway to a wide array of discussions about contemporary culture and aesthetics—from our tendency to anthropomorphize…to the power of cuteness to destabilize a bad mood, to the finite details of photographic compositions,” she writes.
For Regan, the show also represents a look back at a career that veered in a direction she never imagined. In recent years she has turned her attention back to documentary work, experimenting with new conceptual forms of presentation. “There are more documentary photographs in the world than ever before, and I think people have become inured to them, so I’m taking my work into a more cinematic realm and often incorporating installations,” she says. For instance, Regan’s “Drive-Thru” series, which was shown at Los Angeles’s Kopeiken Gallery, captured the nocturnal landscape of American fast-food restaurants with images printed exactly at the size of drive-thru windows.
She stopped photographing Mr. Winkle a few years ago, when the star was at his physical prime, so that his fans would always be able to remember him as he looked back in the days when the Internet was young. But the fans remain, avid, undaunted, and loyal, millions of them. Mr. Winkle is and will forever remain a part of our cultural history.