The Grace Of Nuance: Dan Winters
Some people might say that Dan Winters has an amazing photographic style, that you can tell at first glance if he took a particular photograph. His signature lighting style, the red and green tones he uses and the dramatic expressions he gets from his subjects are all part of how he shoots. He would say it is more of a sensibility than a style, however, saying that a style relates more to the technique and materials used. A sensibility would be what you bring to every shoot no matter where it is or what tools you use. Whether you call it a style or a sensibility, though, you can’t deny Dan Winters is an artist.
I found Dan Winters’ work fairly recently. I think the first image I saw of his was his portrait of Tupac Shakur. Even though Tupac wasn’t looking into the camera, I found the image mesmerizing. Image after image in Winters’ portfolio captivated me. Though he is well known as a celebrity photographer, his portraits of “regular people” are every bit as engaging and are treated with the same level of care and reverence, a word Winters uses often to describe his work. “I like the word reverent for portraits”, he says “and I think we need more of that reverence for people and for their own experience and their own path and the way that they’re represented.” Though I am not a portrait photographer, if I were, I would love to be able to take the kind of portraits that Dan Winters takes; portraits you can get lost in. I love that Winters avoids the stereotypical “look at me, I’m famous” celebrity portrait. Rather, he tries to do something purposeful, something unique. Whether he’s catching Stevie Wonder without his glasses or carrying Sandra Bullock on his shoulders to place her in a tide pool or capturing Brad Pitt playing Rock Band. Each photograph reflects not only the time and effort he puts in, but also his profound love of the creative process. With his years of experience it would be easy for him to just stick with what he knows and make every shot the same, but he takes each portrait assignment as a very personal challenge.
His portraits are also unique in that the subjects seldom seem to be looking directly at you. He says he likes to do that because it tends to make the viewer feel more comfortable. It allows us to look at that person and study them without feeling voyeuristic. I think it makes it less intimidating than having the subject staring back at you, almost challenging you. We are allowed to look as long as we like without being questioned.
He is on a deeply personal journey with photography that began during his childhood and you can see that in every shot he takes. He takes photographs with a sense of passion and wonder. This is someone whose life is the camera, and whose camera is an extension of him. He has a genuine respect and love for the medium, knowing the importance of creating and preserving a moment in time. He says he is growing to value more and more the importance of the still image and loves studying a moment that isn’t fleeting. Everything around us is so fluid, we are constantly moving. Photographs are the only thing that show us stillness. I think that moment of stillness is what appeals to me so much in his work. When life is so fast-paced, photographs can seemingly stop time. Dan Winters shows us those moments in a completely unique way.
Winters’ first exposure to photography, was not actually making pictures at all, but rather in the darkroom of a family friend who was also a photography instructor for the local 4H club in Winters’ home town of Ventura, California. Seeing the image come up in the tray of developer was magic to Winters and his passion for the darkroom continues to this day. Winters often jokes that the reason he takes photographs is just so that he’ll have something to print. Winters decided to pursue photography professionally in high school and for over three decades he has been shooting some of the world’s most familiar faces and his impressive list of clients include Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair, TIME, Rolling Stone, and Newsweek. Additionally, he has won over one hundred different awards, both nationally and internationally, including being honored by Kodak in 2003 as a photo Icon in their biographical “Legends” series. Like many photographers, it’s Winters’ personal projects that really show where his true passions lie. Even when there is no “job” to work on, he is always challenging himself, whether it is to document his son’s life or to take a photographs of honey bees using a scanning electron microscope or even creating mixed media art pieces. He prides himself on the diversity of his work and you only have to look at his portfolio to see that.
One of the more unique aspects to Winters’ photography is that he builds many of his own sets for his portraits. He says he finds it easier to do that than to actually find the place he has in mind and then try to get his subject there. All he has to do is get the subject to his studio. When there is not a lot of time, everything is all ready to go and he can just shoot. This also affords him a an enormous degree of creativity in creating environments that are unique to his photographs. Whatever he dreams up, he is able to build, which means location is not really an issue. When he had the opportunity to shoot Denzel Washington, he imagined it taking place in the corner of an old pool hall, so that was the set that he built. When shooting Jim Carrey he envisioned a dingy hotel room as the backdrop and rather than trying to find it and fit all of the gear into a real place, he built it. Not all of the set design and construction is paid for by the companies that hire him, which I find even more admirable. He pays for it out of his own pocket, creating the images he wants for art’s sake, not for the financial payoff. If he has an idea of what he wants to do he’ll do it just to see if he can, such as in the series of Ferrell Industries videos for Wired Magazine. He wants whatever he does, whether a piece of art, a photography assignment or one of his personal constructions, to be the best that he can do.
He seems to throw himself into whatever he is interested in, whether that is WWII memorabilia, insects, or typography. His life is full and in every aspect of it he incorporates his photography. I think this is what makes his images so fascinating. He uses photography to express his passion for whatever subject interests him. Jay Maisel was asked by a student how to take more interesting pictures. Jay responded simply “Become a more interesting person.” Dan Winters is just that. He just seems to be a man passionate about everything he is involved in. He is an artist and craftsman who not only genuinely loves what he does, but he loves the life that he has created because of it.