In a portrait currently hanging in the National Gallery of Victoria, George poses in a blue zip-up jacket emblazoned with an American flag patch and a name badge. He stares into middle distance, pensive. We don’t know much about the subject. By the uniform, it looks like he may be an astronaut. What we do know is he’s a weimaraner puppy.

This is the work of American photographer and conceptual artist William Wegman, who’s been photographing weimaraners in elaborate poses for forty years. Wegman began developing the format with Man Ray, his first Weimaraner, shot in black and white. Wegman soon moved to colour, and his set-ups became increasingly elaborate. Though at first it might seem like a joke, the work quickly goes deeper. Being Human, currently showing at the NGV, eases us into a world of anthropomorphised dogs, taking us quickly from the faintly ridiculous to the sublime.

Curator William Ewing, from the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography in Minneapolis, worked with Wegman to curate this selection of 100 of the artist’s collaborations with his dogs.

“I find it funny continuously,” says Ewing. “But at the same time I have no trouble seeing the seriousness of it. You know the expression, ‘the unbearable lightness of being’? I see them that way. They’re about the lightness of being.”

The animals are graceful, natural models, and Wegman’s images resonate emotionally as the viewer finds human expressions in the animals. Wegman’s dogs appear in a variety of poses, from historical scenarios to more abstract set-ups, sometimes wearing human clothes, such as uniforms or high heels, or sometimes – ironically – nude.

The title of the show, Being Human, hints at its deeper aspirations, and the catalogue essay opens with a quote from Marcel Proust: “Our social personality is a creation of the minds of others.”

“He didn’t like the title at first,” says Ewing. “I said, ‘Listen Bill, it’s not about dogs at all. It’s really about people.’”

The images are the result of Wegman’s close relationships with his animals – developed over decades – and his dedication to the large-format Polaroid, an unwieldy and obscure camera that produces 20-inch by 24-inch prints.

Shooting weimaraners isn’t all Wegman does. He’s a renowned conceptual artist, painter and filmmaker. His work, including the collaborations with his dogs, has appeared everywhere from MoMA in New York to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. But it’s the weimaraner images that have resonated the most. Not many contemporary artists are featured on Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live.

Since film for Wegman’s preferred shooting format has now ceased production (the last firm making it stopped in late 2017), Wegman has transitioned to digital. The work continues.

"Some dogs don't like to be stared at,” Wegman wrote online in 2002. “Man Ray required it. Surrounded by light boxes that flanked the cyclopean eye of the big camera, he was truly at ease, never balking as I studied him for new possibilities.”

Ewing says Wegman’s current family of dogs is just as theatrical as their late patriarch. “The dogs needed it as much as he did.”

William Wegman: Being Human is at NGV International until March 17.