Dan Winters is one of the most recognizable, awarded and sought-after editorial photographers in the world. I’ve worked with him a number of times, even visited his studio in Austin, but it wasn’t until I got the chance to interview him that I fully understood what makes him tick as a photographer. I think you will really enjoy reading what he had to say.
Rob: So how are things with you? Busy as ever I’m sure.
Dan: I feel like the greatest gift I’ve had, is the fact that in 26 years, I’ve never not been busy. Honestly, I think the key to that has been, treat every assignment as if it’s your first one, you know? I think there is a misconception, especially that students have and I really make a point when I speak at schools to talk about the fact that you never really arrive. You are always working towards something but you never stop. I think there is this crazy idea that you get somewhere and then everything is cool.
Rob: OK, so can we go back to the beginning? I really want to hear how you got started in photography.
Dan: The first exposure I had to it was when I was in 4-H club, I was 9 or 10. We had an instructor who was a military photographer during Vietnam, and he was really passionate about it. He had a full darkroom set up at his house, so he headed the photography project.
Once I graduated from high school, I started going to a junior college that had and still continues to have the same instructor, John Gray, who was incredibly influential to me and several other guys like Matt Mahurin. I still go out to my old alma mater, Moorpark College, and give lectures and I talk to him all the time. He’s still a mentor. He studied under all the people who started the New Bauhaus School in Chicago. You know, Moholy-Nage and Manray, Siskind, Callahan; they were all in Chicago at the Art Institute. And John studied under them. And so, he brought that to educating which, you know, is lacking in institutions that teach photography.
So early on, I started to just devour everything I could about early photography and early processes. John’s a talented photographer but knows his life’s calling is to educate and to inspire. So when I was at Moorpark, that was huge for me. That was like, you know, the floodgates opened and it was just profound. Then I went to Munich, and went to film art school at the University of Munich film department.
Rob: Wait, why did you go study film?
Dan: I was really interested in photojournalism, and documentary photography, which was what I was doing early on. And, for some reason I wanted to study documentary film. And they had this legendary department. Herzog was on the board, and Fassbinder, at one point when he was still alive, was on the board. It was this great thing I’d read about. I’d studied German in high school and in college, and I thought it would be this great adventure. I was doing carpentry while I was going to junior college and I saved a bunch of money but school didn’t cost anything. Material cost but if you get accepted into a German school you don’t have to pay for it because tuition at state universities is free.
I actually felt what was inspirational to me about Germany was a little bit romanticized. I had this idea that I would go over to a foreign country and study. And I’d read Hemingway, and I’d read Orwell, “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “A Moveable Feast, ” which are about them living on nothing in a foreign city, a little bro’ thing, with them. I was doing odd jobs, and I shot some stuff for the “Deutsche Zeitung,” which is the German version of “The New York Times, ” some freelance stuff. I was hustling.
I started to realize that this has been an incredible experience, but I’ve – I don’t want to say I’ve thrown away the last year and a half of my life – but certainly I could have probably been moving in the direction that I wanted to be moving more rapidly if I hadn’t gone. But, now I look back on it, and it was invaluable to me to have that experience. I think living abroad for anybody especially Americans because you tend to grow up a little bit myopically, is a great experience. So, anyway, I didn’t finish school there. I went for about a year, a little under a year and a half, I guess. Then I came back and I got hired by a local paper. It was a 35,000 daily.
Rob: And this is in California? Where?
Dan: Yeah, in southern California, “Thousand Oaks News Chronicle.” We had seven staff photographers, a full time photo editor and a full time lab tech. It was the best job I ever had, hands down. I had a ’62 Volkswagen bug, and I had a photojournalist vest, and my big Domke bag, and two cameras hanging around my neck and a scanner. I was the happiest guy on the planet, responding to everything from accidents to fires.
Rob: And you loved that, you loved being in the action and shooting that style and all that?
Dan: Yep, I loved it. I loved shooting that way, and I still love that form. That was actually a really weird time for photojournalism, too. I always used to criticize the trend that existed then, so much stuff in the ’80s was shot with 300-millimeter lenses. I never shot that way. I didn’t like it. And they would do that insane, burning, I used to call it the “hand of God burning, ” where they’d burn everything down in the print except for like the face, try so hard to show you what to look at I’d go, “What’d you do, put a quarter on that guy’s face while you were making the exposure?”
It’s so weird that a big percentage of the stuff that’s out there that’s actually documenting our time is looking like this. So I was shooting everything with like a 35 or a 28. If I wanted to get close on something, I’d run close to it. I wouldn’t stand back 500 feet and shoot it with a 300 or a 600.
Rob: So, you’re pretty hard-nosed about this at the time?
Dan: You know when you’re young and you’re super-opinionated? I think, partially, it comes out of fear. You want to kind of protect your ideas, and I was really bull-headed. I remember when I first started, I think it was all based on fear, but I had all these ideas of how “I’m not going to do it like other people, I’m going to do it my way” kind of thing. But of course, every photographer goes through the phases, “he thinks he’s Cartier Bresson.”
Rob: And so you went through that. You thought you were Cartier Bresson?
Dan: Oh, big time. I was begging the photo editor to print the rebate around my images.
Dan: Not even kidding. They started doing it. I mean, I have tear sheets from the newspapers that I shot where I’d do a photo essay, and I’d lay the thing out, and they’d give great space. That was back in the days, too, when they had a passionate photo editor. I’d work on a photo essay for a month. Obviously, I had to do all my general-assignment stuff, too, but a lot of times I’d go in, and my assignment slip for the day would say “photo essay,” and I would just be able to go out and work on my projects. They’d run huge double-spreads and a cover and I’d run them all full-frame. [laughs]
Rob: And this was all in Thousand Oaks?
Dan: Yeah, Thousand Oaks News Chronicle. Then I started stringing for the Los Angeles Times, doing freelance stuff. They had a huge staff back then.
And then this Eddie Adams Workshop thing came up. John, actually, at Moorpark, he’s the one who told me about it. He said, “Hey, there’s this thing that ‘Life’ magazine and Kodak and ‘Geographic’ are putting on, the Eddie Adams Workshop. I really think you ought to apply for it because I think it would be a great experience.”
Rob: Had that been going on for a while?
Dan: It had never gone on.
Rob: That was the first one?
Dan: It was the first one. So I applied, and there were several thousand applicants, and they took 35 people.
Dan: It was this HUGE thing. And it was limited to photographers that had had two years or less professional experience. You submitted 20 slides. At the time I was already starting to do magazine stuff, even when I was shooting for the newspapers. I was really passionate about magazine photography then. I was looking at stuff in the ’80s that Greg Heisler was doing for “Life” and for “Sports Illustrated, ” like the landmark photos that he did of Ali, which were just incredible. Still, by today’s standards, I don’t remember seeing anything as beautiful ever in a magazine. And I was like, “That’s what I want to be doing.” So, I started taking strobes to my newspaper shoots.
And if I had to do a shot of whatever or whoever, I was treating it like a magazine. I started shooting four-by-five at the newspaper as well as, obviously, covering events in 35, when appropriate. But if it was an assignment to shoot a story on someone that did ceramics or a potter–I remember I did one on a potter–and I shot the lead photo four-by-five, and I lit it, and I was really trying to kind of emulate a lot of what was going on in magazine photography at that time.
When I applied for the workshop, I certainly had a couple photo essays in there and a couple spot-news pieces, but I put a whole bunch of large format portraits and photo-illustrations in there. I was doing these illustrations for the opinion page. And I really feel like that was part of the reason that I got into that workshop, because it was kind of a journalism workshop, and a lot of the people that were involved in it were magazine people. Almost all of them.
I’d never been to New York. And my uncle lived there, so I stayed at his house for a couple days, then he loaned me a car and I drove upstate. I showed up at the farm, and there was like this HUGE workforce of people trying to get this thing ready. Eddy had a farm in upstate New York, right? And he had this barn. And it was not a joke, they were calling it “The Barn,” and it was a barn. Its got dirt floors and it was a fricking barn. And so, it didn’t have power, so they had run power from the road up, and they had like a four or five hundred foot long trench that was open, and needed to be backfilled. They had a JD350, well actually they had JD450 kind of bulldozer. And I grew up on a farm, and my dad had a bulldozer. He had the JD350.
Rob: Where did you grow up on a farm?
Dan: In Ventura County in California, I sold a pig at the fair every year. I was in 4H.
Rob: Oh man, it’s all making sense now, all right.
Dan: I said, “Well I’m here, I know I’m early, but can I help?’ And one of the guys, like I think almost like jokingly said, “Yeah, You know how to drive a bulldozer?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he goes, “Can you backfill that trench?” And I said, “Yeah.” So, I backfilled the whole trench, I spent the whole day doing it. I tamped, you know I packed it, I back filled the whole thing. And they were like, “Wow.” So Eddie, who was really impressed by that, “listen, I want you to come to the house every night.” And the house was totally off limits to every student there. And I was the only student that was in that house.
Rob: What!? No way.
Dan: So every night I’d go and I was hanging out with all these guys, man. All these guys. You know Heisler, Jay Maisel…
Rob: It was all the instructors hanging about the house drinking and bullshitting?
Dan: Drinking and smoking and doing the whole thing. You know rolling my drum cigarettes, drinking every night and partying with all these guys like Heisler, who I was totally in awe of. I showed Jay Maisel my 20 picture slide thing that I had applied for my workshop with. I said, “if you don’t mind, can I show you this?” They had like made an area of the barn with lights, tables and stuff, where you could show work. And I ask Jay specifically, if he could look at some stuff. He looked at it, then he went over and got Heisler, came back and he said, “you ought to look at this guys stuff.” Greg looked at it all, and he goes – I’ll never forget this conversation – he said, “OK, what are you doing right now?” I said, “Well, I work for this 35,000 daily in Southern California, general assignment photographer.” He goes, “OK, here’s what you got to do. You’ve got to quit your job, you’ve got to move to New York.”
Heisler had just moved out of an apartment in Little Italy into a loft in Soho and he had three months left on the lease so he said, “you can stay in there for three months”, and “I’m going to set you up with this guy I know, Chris Callis, he needs an assistant right now, you should go interview with him.” So I went back to New York the day after the workshop and I went to Chris’s studio, and I met with him and he said, “if you move here, I’ll give you a job.”
When I made the arrangements with Chris, I really wanted to be a star. There was no way I wanted to assist for any kind of long term period, because I’d already been a photo journalist professionally for two years, and was shooting every day. But, I knew I could learn a lot assisting in New York especially because he was doing huge shoots. I told him I would do it and he wanted a commitment because there was a big learning curve and I said, “I’ll give you a year commitment. So I went back to the paper and said, “I’m leaving, I want to give my two weeks notice,” and I moved to New York.
PART 2 TOMORROW