Mr. Winkle: Inside and Out

The images and characters of Mr. Winkle, created by renowned photographer Lara Jo Regan, are much more complex than the prima facie perception of an oddly cute and oft-anthropomorphized dog. They are simultaneously irresistible and perplexing; they harken back to the art-directed tableaux of early photo history but also canonize the first generation of internet celebrity; they reflect a universal penchant for zoomorphic cuteness; and are testament to Regan’s deft aesthetic skills as both an artistic and documentary photographer.

Mr. Winkle was first spotted in 1998 wandering erratically in the dark near a freeway off-ramp in Bakersfield, California. Initially appearing to be a tumbling piece of trash, he eventually made his way into Regan’s field of vision and into her life. Once behind her lens, however, he captured not just Regan’s imagination, but the attention and fascination of fans the world over, for years to come.

To give an overview of Regan’s Mr. Winkle oeuvre, the works in this show are culled from five distinct series: the Hotel/Motel Nudes; Studio Nudes; Nature Nudes; the ‘What is Mr. Winkle?’ Characters; and the History Characters created for her third book (“A Winkle in Time, Mr. Winkle Celebrates the Underdogs of History”). Each series is infused with the visual lexicon of a traditional genre of photography. The Studio Nudes were shot with a large format camera and an eye towards the posed and austere classicism of nude human portraiture. The Hotel/Motel Nudes (shot in medium format) were created while Regan and Mr. Winkle traveled the country for book signings and celebrity appearances. This series mimes the documentation of the backstage lifestyle of a superstar, but also cites Americanographers such as Robert Frank or Stephen Shore as it examines the high- and low-class interiors of road-trip lodging and lounging. In the Nature Nudes, Regan cites the paradigm of shooting nude models – usually women – in natural settings, drawing a visual and linguistic association with the body and the landscape. The Character series evolved from the myriad public speculations about what Mr. Winkle might be, resulting from his remarkable appearance and demeanor. At times he seemed like another mammal; sometimes he assimilated inanimate objects, and in others he approximated mythical creatures. Regan painstakingly created detailed tableaux and costumes to visualize these possible incarnations. In the Underdogs of History, Mr. Winkle assumes a pedagogical position to remind us of important, overlooked figures in history across several eras and continents.

At the onset of portrait photography in the 1840s and 1850s, role-playing and fabricated sets were de rigeur. It was even common for portrait sitters to don costumes or props that allowed them to appropriate and perform a class, profession, or ethnicity other than their own. It was an experience and portrayal of an act of transformation. While Mr. Winkle has quintessentially neotenic and cute features – large eyes, small nose, fluffy fur – which are disarmingly cute, he is also deceptively diverse, simultaneously occupying realms of cute, kitsch, conceptualism, and classicism.

Over the years Regan has excavated every nuanced detail of a photographer’s relationship to her muse. Because Mr. Winkle’s excessive cuteness, it is harder to be duly serious about such an endeavor, but here too, there are important precedents in art history. Paul Cezanne made over sixty paintings of Mont Sainte Victoire, Alfred Stieglitz shot nearly 300 images of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands, and in the course of his career Giorgio Morandi painted over 1,350 images – nearly all of them still lives with bottles and dishes. Edward Weston spent two weeks in a bathroom in Mexico, studying every curve of a porcelain toilet before making his famous, eponymous image. Images of Mr. Winkle, too, now number in the hundreds. The photographer’s muse – whether a mountain, a lover, bottles, or a dog – serves as a means of imaging introspection, self-reflection, and artistic existentialism. In Regan’s case, images of Mr. Winkle also serve as visual antidotes to the gritty, documentary reportage that fills the other part of her photographic career.

As with artistic practice in general, the muse serves as both mirror and window – a reflection of the artist’s vision and ideas, as well as a window onto other worlds of inspiration and observation. Mr. Winkle emerged as an object of projection from the very first year that Regan found him. He garnered unexpected amounts of attention and speculation, and ultimately rose to internet fame – the first online animal celebrity, setting the precedent for innumerable furry colleagues in subsequent years (think Knut the polar bear, Maru the cat, Boo the dog). It was fan interest and suggestions that initially inspired Regan to start the Mr. Winkle photographs, also presaging the crowd-sourcing, wiki-models of creative production in the Web 2.0 era. Fusing elements from William Wegman’s anthropomorphized Weimaraner portraits, and Cindy Sherman’s polymorphic self-portraits, Mr. Winkle’s chameleonic subjects take on historical heroes, inanimate objects, human caricatures, rock star personas, and even a negativity-diffusing bodhisattva.

Recently there has been increased interest in the fields of anthrozoology, ethology, and epigenetics, as knowledge of the complexities of human-animal relationships has been expanded and foregrounded in social and scientific research. In some ways, Mr. Winkle presents depictions of these associations, but his images also present viewers with opportunities for a human-animal experience unto itself. Images of Mr. Winkle reference a number of canons of cultural production, from the onset of portrait photography to contemporary photography, from 19th century illustrations of anthropomorphized animals, to internet celebrity. Regan has astutely configured Mr. Winkle as a very complex subject – one who reflects, historicizes, soothes, inspires, provokes, and delights.

--Micol Hebron Curator, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art

For more information about Mr. Winkle or Lara Jo Regan, please visit their websites:

All Images © Micol Hebron, 2016