Dan Winters

Dan Winters doesn’t neatly fit the label of photographer. The American is well known for his celebrity portraiture, his scientific photography, even photo illustrations, collage and drawings. Winters works for editorial and commercial clients including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Time, Warner Brothers and Sony BMG.

Written by      

Travis Smith

We work in a technical medium, and before we do anything we have to ask the questions, ‘What are we doing? Why am I doing this? What am I trying to accomplish?’ Once intent is established you can move forward and figure out how to actually construct the photograph.

Understanding my dialogue with myself is the most important aspect of all the pursuits that I do creatively—whether it’s designing, painting, drawing, photograms, chemagrams, collage or photography. I am reacting to certain things and if I am mindful of why I am reacting to them, then I can be mindful of these circumstances when they come up.

Looking outside of our medium for inspiration is a great a place to start. The idea of exploring beyond the photographic process, even as an observer, will ultimately benefit you. We don’t want our medium to be so incestuous that we are only looking to photography for inspiration.

My son said that art was really frustrating for him because he couldn’t see it. Whereas with a mathematics problem—even if it is a multiple page problem—he can see it, it’s defined and there’s a point where it’s done and solved. I said, ‘Over time it’s like anything else; you start to really understand what you’re doing and understand your voice.’ It’s not to say you’ll ever perfect it, but you can definitely anticipate an outcome. I see the kernels of my approach way back on my earliest contact sheets. As time goes by you start to understand the way you’re working and what you’re thinking.

My first creative epiphanies were more like small victories. You move forward creatively based on a change in your perception, or change in your technique. You start to see the environment as something other than a physical space you’re just passing through, but an environment with artistic potential. Having those epiphanies is great because you understand that you’re growing.

Early on in people’s paths, technique is very frightening. But the technical voice isn’t enough. You have to have something to say. As Ansel Adams said ‘I’d rather look at a bad print of a good photograph than a good print of a bad photograph’.

You’re only as good as your last photograph. I’ve been with students who have said they couldn’t stay up to finish the assignment, or that they didn’t do as good a job as they could have because they were busy. And I tell them, ‘What you’re describing right now is life, and that happens to me as well, and I have to work through it.’

I’m a portrait photographer, I’m not a lifestyle photographer where I get the celebrity to play playfully, run around and drive a convertible and wave. I’m a portrait photographer so I always think in terms of classic portraits.

My goal when I am shooting pictures—and portraits specifically—is to create a beautiful likeness that might also be a definitive picture. I like the idea of creating a definitive portrait, but not with artifice. My lighting doesn’t call a tonne of attention to itself. I feel like back-lighting and side-lighting date. Think about Avedon’s work, it is one light, there is no technique, but it is beautiful work because he lets the subject drive the image.

I usually preface a shoot by saying I want you to think of this as a portrait sitting not as a photo shoot, which immediately changes the context. Then I’ll say, ‘Listen, I don’t really need you to do anything, I’ll talk you through this whole thing’, which is another relief for the subject. ‘I’ll tell you what I want, I’ll direct it, you just sit tight.’ The shoot we did with Tilda Swinton yesterday she was like a blank slate. I’d say, ‘Eyes closed, chin up, locate your head towards me a little bit, stop right there, OK, stop, boom-boom-boom, OK chin up a little bit more, good hold that.’ I mean actors take direction all the time, right?

Ninety per cent of the time people who show up on set have looked at the website and so they have an idea of the kinds of pictures that I’m probably going to want to make. I think they feel like they are going to be presented with reverence and that’s what I try and do. I try and show reverence to the subject.