Celebrity Heads - meet the amazing Dan Winters
Portrait photographer Dan Winters has been recognised worldwide for his iconic photography with over one hundred awards, including a 1st prize in the World Press Photo awards in the Portrait category. With editorial work for publications including TIME magazine, The New Yorker, and National Geographic, and advertising work for clients such as Nike and Microsoft, Winters has never not been busy in his three-decade career. Christopher Quyen discovers just where his drive comes from.
For Dan Winters, photography has been an extremely personal medium of expression. By pursuing his artistic desires and vision throughout a 32-year career, he has crafted a style that is iconic and unmistakably his. With a diverse portfolio of celebrity portraiture capturing personalities from Tom Hanks to Barack Obama, scientific photography of aerospace, advertising work, still life, editorials, and photojournalistic stories, it’s tough to pin a label on Winters.
The diversity in his work is, in itself, a personal reflection of Winters’ world. He is passionate about photography just as he is passionate about collage, illustration, aerospace, science, woodworking, model building, American model M1 helmets, entomology, and raising his bees. “I choose to diversify in photography because I am interested by a lot of things,” he says. “I want to be an engaged and interested person. I would be remiss if the only thing I shot was portraiture.” While his career may be a juggling act of his passions, they ultimately all work together to inspire and inform the work he produces.
An education in passion
Education was an important part of Winters’ decision to become a photographer. However, it was less about learning the technical aspects of photography and more about learning to treasure and pursue his passions. Born in a small town in Ventura County, California, Winters was first exposed to photography at around the age of 10 by an instructor in his local 4-H club [a global network of youth organisations], who was a military photographer in Vietnam. It quickly became one of his many interests. Throughout his youth, Winters’ interests were fostered by his teachers at school and his parents who would always make an effort so he could explore his interests. “They would never resist driving me seven miles to a little library so I could access reading material, [for example]” says Winters.
Winters eventually began working full-time in the motion picture special effects industry on miniature construction and design during his high school senior years, and studied photography in 1981 at Moorpark College in California. “I had an instructor in college, John Gray, who probably made the most profound contribution to my life than any one individual. He was incredible in the sense that he took a non-linear path to learning where he educated and inspired us to learn by following our passions,” says Winters. Being instilled with the idea that he could freely pursue his passions and interests ultimately became a recurring theme throughout his life. “Because I grew up in a small town, I don’t think some of my teachers had an idea of how my interests could fit into the world model. We were far away from the film and photography and art world, but I really do know now that they always tried to steer me into a direction of following my passion, which I was very grateful for.”
Opening the floodgates
After receiving an Associate of Arts degree at Moorpark College in 1984, Winters went on to study documentary studies in narrative photojournalism at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, in Germany. It was a defining moment in his journey as it marked the point where he began to truly understand photography. “It felt like the floodgates opened in Munich. Everywhere I looked I could see photographic potential. I know I was really trying to make a conscious effort on how to see the frame and how to wait for moments, and finding areas to shoot and going back to them,” says Winters. Understanding the way he thought about photography informed the way Winters worked and fuelled his love for street photography. “I really looked up to Cartier-Bresson and Stieglitz, who are two of my favourite photographers, because they just did the same thing as me and went out and took pictures. I didn’t have anybody to shoot or any assignments, so the only way to take pictures was to go out and take them,” says Winters.
This paved the way to his first job as a photojournalist at his local paper – The Thousand Oaks News Chronicle. It was here he would spend the next two years shooting everything from portraits to events to accidents, which eventually led to him stringing for the Los Angeles Times. Winters has attributed his diverse photo repertoire to the start of his career. “I never wanted to do one thing. It might’ve come from the newspaper background where you were forced to be diverse,” says Winters. But during his time working at the newspaper, he always took a different approach to his job.
From shooting as close as he could to the action with short focal length lenses as opposed to using telephoto lenses to setting up strobes to light his portraits, Winters always went the extra mile. It was this work that would land him a spot at an Eddie Adams Workshop after his teacher, John Gray, suggested that he apply. During the workshop he was able to connect with photographers like Gregory Heisler and Jay Maisel. After showing Heisler and Maisel his work, Heisler immediately imparted some advice that would put Winters on the path that he would come to walk: Quit your job and move to New York.
A New York state of mind
New York proved to be a different beast for Winters. During this time, Heisler had set up an interview for Winters to work as an assistant for commercial photographer, Chris Callis. Although he had been shooting professionally for two years, he knew that he had to learn the ropes when it came to the bigger jobs. “I decided to learn from Chris because coming from a newspaper background [and then] seeing a huge production with a lot of equipment and assistants and stylists and all that… that would’ve been very frightening for me,” says Winters. But the biggest lesson that Winters learnt from Callis was not in terms of lighting technique or how to run a commercial production, but rather what it means to be a commercial photographer. “Seeing Callis’ work ethic really inspired me to always take a lot of pride in mine as well. Also, seeing someone forced to produce under time constraint pressures, I knew it would be difficult, but since I had that experience assisting with him, I became very comfortable with it.”
After leaving his job with Callis, New York became a place where Winters would make a name for himself in the industry. Because the community was a lot smaller in the 1980s, he would call up magazines, cycle to their offices, and drop his portfolio off before picking it up again. Before he knew it, Winters was doing shoots for magazines like the Rolling Stones and Vanity Fair. In 1992, Kathy Ryan, the director of photography for the New York Times, called him to shoot Denzel Washington, which would prove to be a seminal moment.
It was the first time he built one of his signature sets for the shoot. “My passion for carpentry now helps me with pre-visualising shoots that involve sets or construction pieces,” says Winters. “In a way, all my passions influence each other, and I find them all integral to my work.” From that moment forward, work continued flowing in and life was moving faster than ever as he documented the iconic personalities of our time, from Bono to the Dalai Lama. But since getting married, in 1991, to Kathryn Fouts, his now photo rep and studio manager, and having a son in 1993, he knew he had to slow down. And relocating to Austin, Texas, seemed like the next step forward in his career.
Creating an icon
Winters has had his work widely recognised as iconic, but whether he knew what it was that made a great or iconic image was something that even he had difficulty pinpointing. “An image can be good in its technique and I can explain why that particular image is good to people, but ultimately it’s about how it’s going to resonate with you emotionally,” he says. While emotional response is difficult to gauge, it is what keeps Winters striving to capture the emotion from his subject in a single frame. “Sometimes I wax poetic [for inspiration] prior to a shoot. It makes me realise that as we grow, we should be constantly questioning what the potential is in the subject we’re shooting,” says Winters.
But appreciation comes in many different forms and, often, what one may regard as a great image might not make sense to another. “For example, I don’t think my parents would appreciate street photography the amount I do,” he says. Perhaps then it’s about creating an image that works on multiple levels. “Eugene Smith, who was an early influence for me, talked about the multi-level picture story,” says Winters. “He talked about the idea that images could work on a number of different levels. They could work purely on an emotional level, from a graphic nature, a level of content, or they could work from a formal standpoint where you see just the nature.”
While the rise of social media and digital photography has made it harder to grasp whether an image can be iconic or not, Winters has since embraced the change. “Everybody’s saying that everyone’s a photographer now, but I don’t feel that way. With digital, you get an image that is sharp and properly exposed, and then after that it’s all about image-making.” This has become a huge part of his ability to create a certain mood and atmosphere surrounding his images that is instantly recognisable as a Winters’ image. However, while the ability to take a raw image and edit it to your artistic vision has taken the stress out of spending all his time in the darkroom, getting a great shot, at the end of the day, remains a top priority. “Too many people are slapping filters over mundane photos,” says Winters. “Filters are like artifice – you’re just capturing and applying a look to take it out of the realm of reality in order to give someone a different experience of something.”
Push-ups and sit-ups
Although Winters is constantly busy nowadays with assignments and commercial work, he still finds it important to shoot, for himself, every day to stay sharp. Another of Winters’ heroes, Robert Frank, said, “Shooting for yourself is like a boxer training before going into a fight.” Winters says, “You could call it ‘photography calisthenics’ where it’s like you’re doing your push-ups and sit-ups, except with your camera”. So whenever he has time, he finds himself indulging in street photography or chasing personal projects like documenting his son’s childhood and adolescence. “Garry Winogrand was a working commercial photographer shooting products even though he was known more for his street works,” says Winters. “And Harry Callahan is a huge hero of mine. My heroes have always been people who were on the street shooting.” By choosing to shoot every day, Winters has found that he has been able to stay nimble with the camera, make quick decisions, and also think on his feet, which is “very paramount” to being a photographer.
Winters’ love for street photography runs back to when he first picked up a camera. “The thing I love the most about street/public photography is that the photographer is, at times, almost unguarded. We have a camera, and I like to shoot with a 50mm or 35mm, and we have nothing to hide behind. It’s pretty true to what you’re actually seeing,” says Winters. Beautifully realised street photos have become something that Winters has a deep appreciation of due to the level of nuance that exists in the photo, but also the level of skill the photographer requires to get that picture. “I feel like as a photographer, these are your real chops.”
Photographing his son’s youth has also been a constant personal project of Winters’. “It was an expression of love, and it was also a way to do those photographic calisthenics to stay sharp,” he says. “I know it’s been a great deal to my son, but I think there were some times when he was ten or eleven when he wanted me to start paying him as a model!” Although he doesn’t get paid for the time he spends shooting on the streets or shooting his personal projects, he says that it’s something that goes beyond commerce. “I just love to play. I just love the process. I love photographing so much and what better to photograph than your surroundings?”
Be a more interesting person
One of Winters’ favourite quotes is from Jay Maisel: “If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person”. And it’s something that really resonates with Winters. “I really love it because I feel like, to a degree, as photographers we’re hired for our opinion on things,” Winters says. “Don’t [just] look within the discipline; look outside as well, especially as photography is so dependent on our surroundings.” As a result, being engaged, informed, and interested in the world around him has been second nature to Winters. “You need to go out there and almost act like a journalist and talk to people. I feel like being able to connect to people and staying engaged is a big piece in informing our work,” he says. Since combining his passions with his photography and pursuing work related to his interests, Winters has found constants in his life amongst his hectic schedule. “There’s one thing about being an assignment photographer,” says Winters. “The arc of your work seems to be a pretty radical curve. It shoots up, then drops back down, then you go back up again and go back down. So to have constants in my life, I have found to be very helpful, whether it’s personal projects or exploration projects, and bees, and buildings things.”
Tools of the trade
Although his analogue collection of Canon, Hasselblad, Contax, Rolleiflex, and Sinar film cameras are something to be envied, Winters rarely shoots on film for jobs. “We live in an economy of impatience so I find that even when I have shot film for magazines, they expect me to jump through hoops to get it to them as soon as possible without understanding the amount of time that is required for processing,” he says. When it comes to commissions, Winters prefers to shoot on either his Pentax 645Z or a Canon 5DS. He is also a big fan of “normal” focal length lenses such as a 35mm, or 50mm lens that “sees as the eye see,” unless he’s shooting portraits in which case he’ll opt for an 85mm. “If I’m shooting medium format, I’ll go for the 90mm or the 150mm. I shoot medium format 95% of the time on commercial jobs.”
Winters has also added a Fuji X100T with a 50mm adaptor on it to his kit. “It’s my daily shooter because it’s light and small, and it’s got a fixed lens. Limiting your options with photography is a great thing,” says Winters. The camera phone has also allowed Winters to explore the photographic potential in everything. “I shoot a lot of stuff with my phone that I'm positive that I’ll never use, but I do it anyway as an exercise,” he says. Not one to get caught up in gear, Winters instead focuses on being the creative talent behind the image. He does, however, admit that sometimes the gear can inform the aesthetic of an image – the trick is to keep the creative vision behind the image consistent.
The process of Winters
While Winters’ work often evokes a mood that is dynamic and striking to its viewers, his creative process isn’t anything too out of the ordinary. His creative process is purely conversation, observation, and dialogue. “I first sit down and have a conversation with [my subject] about what my expectations are, and I tell them what the idea is,” says Winters. Familiarising his subject with the objective of the shoot helps set the tone for the rest of the shoot, so Winters can achieve the image he has visualised. “I’ll also walk them through the set, or the background, or whatever the setting is, if we’re shooting on location. If I can, I’ll also show them something that we shot beforehand with a stand-in to give them an idea of where we’re at.”
Then begins the dialogue between subject and photographer, which can vary depending on Winters’ subject. “The process of being photographed can feel very awkward if it’s something the subject has not done before,” says Winters. “It often requires a lot more explanation on how the process works and why something will work photographically.” Dealing with people who don’t experience it often, he always has a great deal of gratitude for the opportunity to take their photo. “I also take into consideration that it’s probably only going to happen once in their life. I want to acknowledge that, and honour and treat them the same way I treat anyone else photographically.”
But for subjects who have been photographed before, the process becomes a collaboration. “It’s why I love shooting with artists, because they understand that part of the process and want to collaborate with you,” he says. “People who are photographed a lot, or are in film understand that.” He recalls a shoot with Tom Hanks that left a great impression on him where he realised this. “His publicist was tapping her watch to tell us that ‘we’ve gone overtime’ as I was setting up some flags and looking at the light,” Winters says. “We [both] saw her do it, out of the corner of our eyes, and under his breath, [Hanks] said, ‘Take your time,’ which I loved because he knew what I was trying to do!” However, Winters warns that while having creative processes is a great way to work, photography is a medium that requires you to be nimble. “Beware of getting too connected to a process for the sake of the process. Photography is about image-making,” he says.
A wonderful life
Winters’ incredible work ethic has been the key to his success, but he couldn’t have done it without his love and passion for photography and the constants in his life that fuel him when he is not shooting. His wife and life partner, Kathryn, who has run his business for 27 years, has afforded him a freedom that is rare in life. To think about photography like Winters, you have to be endlessly curious and engaged with the world around you, waiting to see what it can offer you, and what you may capture if you pay attention. And it’s something to start now, rather than later. “Photography will [likely] be something that won’t be profitable for you for a while,” he says. “[Financial success] doesn’t happen quickly.” Ultimately for Winters, to stay driven and passionate with your photography is something that you have to do for the right reasons. “If you want to pursue it because you think it’ll be cool and you’ll hang out with cool people or models, then I don’t think that’s a great reason to get into it,” he says. “But if you’re passionate about creating art and image-making, then by all means, it’s a wonderful way to spend a life.”
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