Dan Winters Interview – Part 2

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Dan Winters interview part 2. Part 1 is (here).

Dan Winters, September 1989, New York City

Dan Winters, September 1989, New York City, photograph by Kevin Amer

Dan: I worked for Chris for exactly a year. When my year was coming up, and I said, ” two more months left.” And he’s like, “you’re really going to stop?” and I said, “yeah, I want to shoot.” The entire time I had worked for him, every weekend I was shooting at his studio because he would go to his house on the North Brook Long Island with his wife, and I would have friends come over and shoot portraits of them and do lighting. I built my portfolio while I was working for him. So when I left him, I started going to night meetings.

Rob: A year. that’s pretty fast isn’t it? Sounds like you were super ambitious

Dan: Yeah, I mean this is my life. I had that place in Little Italy for only three months, and then I found a room in Brooklyn in Park Slope. I was dying to get into the city, so I found a shit hole, we called it the hell-hole. It was this building on Lake Street and Hudson in TriBeCa, which at the time was like no man’s land. There wasn’t even a restaurant, you couldn’t do anything. You had to ride your bike over the canal to get Cuban food.

There were three of us in this place, I had one room and my darkroom was in my room and I slept on a futon so I could fold it up and shoot. I’ll never forget opening my eyes when I woke up and looking at chemistry that’s on my shelf.

Rob: [laughs]

Dan: This was a really interesting time. Throughout the history of magazine photography, there had been individual voices but there was more of a different schools of photography. You had the “Geographic” school, the “Life” school and the “Esquire” school of photography. So the magazines were dictating the look, to a certain extent. And photographers were really kind of like scurrying to fit in so that they could be shooting for that magazine, rather than a photographer really trying to hone his own voice and get it published.

So, in the ’80s, I feel like a lot of individualization started to happen with guys like Seliger, Chip Simons, Eisler, Karen Kuehn. Then there was Bill Duke and Matt Mahurin, who did tons of stuff for “Rolling Stone” and were really trying to really individualize. And some of it was based in technique, which I always feel like is a little bit shallow, because I think, when you rely totally on technique, if you have the waif-y, alabaster-skinned model, and you have the right background, you have the right lights, and you have the 8-by-10 Polaroid, you can make this kind of picture. But if you take any of those elements away, you don’t get that. So that’s really technique-based. It’s not like vision.

Heisler was a big influence on me. He could do anything. He was shooting still-life objects and portraits and all kinds of stuff. He did this great photo essay on the Olympics with this amazing portrait of Louganis diving off the high-dive, in infrared four-by-five. I’m like, “Oh, that’s amazing shit.” I was just like, “Wow, this is great!” So that’s where my head was. My head was in New York. My head was on this work.

I built this portfolio up and started to take my portfolio around. It was a custom box, with loose prints, all black and white. You dropped it off, you waited around, you picked it up, you took it somewhere else, because I only had one. So I went to Metropolis Magazine, the design studio that did it was Helene Silverstein and Jeff Christensen, because they didn’t have an in-house art department. They had a studio called Hello Studio, which was awesome, cause when they answered the phone they’d say, “hello studio.” Which always cracked me up.

What I’d do is I ‘d go to the newsstands, to look at magazines and figure out where my work could fit, which I think is very important for a photographer to do. So I would drop off my book. Then ride my bike over to the Cuban restaurant that I used to live at, then I went home and the red message light was beeping on my phone. I picked up the message. And it was Jeff, at Metropolis. He said, “This is Jeffery, you dropped you book off here a few hours ago, I have a couple of assignment for you.”

Rob: Was that your first job?

Dan: First magazine job and the first book I dropped off. In two hours I had two assignments. And I was like, “this is easy man.”

Rob: Ah yes, that’s how it works, you drop your book, they call you two hours later and you have two assignments. [laughs]

Dan: Totally. That was a magical time it was a smaller community. That was when people had their studios in New York and that district was really was thriving at night. You could walk down 17th street between 5th and 6th and it was all strobes. All five floors of these buildings that used to be the garment district with shoots going on and it was so exciting.

Rob: Oh wow.

Dan: An incredible time, but I did all kinds of stupid stuff, I looked at the Rolling Stone masthead and saw art director Fred Woodward and I started calling and Geraldine Hessler was Fred’s assistant. She would pick up Fred’s phone–I was wonderfully naive–I’d say can I talk to Fred? And she started brushing me off a little bit but I was so persistent she finally said listen I’ll tell you what, if you bring your portfolio up here I will give it to Fred to look at.

Rob: Nice.

Dan: So I rode my bike up there dropped the portfolio, went home and maybe three or four hours later Fred called. And he said “it’s Fred Woodward calling from Rolling Stone. Can you come up here tomorrow?” I was just thinking this is insane.

Rob: It’s so easy.

Dan: I know. So I went up there and he took me over to his photo department and introduced me to Laurie, Jodie and Nancy. I always felt like they resented the fact that I went to Fred. But Fred and I stayed very close and he started giving me assignments at Rolling Stone.

Then there was this great magazine back then called Egg. It was this art-downtown kind of magazine. And everybody was shooting for it and I had a couple of great six to ten page portrait series in there and then I got a call from Tibor Kalman who had just been hired by Interview Magazine. He called me up and said “listen, can you come over to Interview so I can talk to you?”

So I went over there and just right off the bat he was like “are you hungry, do you want something?” And I said “yeah.” So he ordered some sandwiches from his office and he said “I don’t know what I am doing here. I’ve never been in a magazine before, but I saw your stuff in Egg and it’s awesome, so do you want to shoot some stuff for me?” And I said “sure.” Right off the bat my first assignment from Tibor and I am not dealing with anybody but him, the art director. He sent me to Brazil to do this thing on Aidan Quinn. And then he sent me to Venezuela to do a thing on this ballet dancer Julio Boca.

He just started giving me all this work six, eight and ten page photo essays. And working with him directly, he would call me up and say “hey Dan come over I want to talk to you about this idea that I have.” And I’d ride my bike over there and it was the most magical time of my life. For sure, I was single, I was in New York, I was living the dream.

And then I got this assignment from Elizabeth Biondi to go out and photograph Dylan McDermott for Vanity Fair and Kathryn, who’s now my wife, was post-production supervisor of this film that Dylan was in. They were doing ADR on the weekend and she was my contact for it. I called her up and we quickly established the fact that we were both single, and how old we were. We got into this flirtatious relationship on the phone to the point where she was just calling me for like nothing, like, “Hey what’s going on with you?”

Rob: [laughs]

Dan: So I went out and I went straight to her house, because she had volunteered to help me find a location for a shoot. And she was in the garage, sweeping and she was all dressed up. So for a week every single night we went out, and then she came to New York, we had little bit of a back and forth thing. Then I just left and went to LA and took the leap of faith and that was that. That was 19 years last November.

Rob: So you came out to LA for her?

Dan: Yeah.

Rob: Wow.  I’m interested to know what was your photography like then?

Dan: It was like the seeds of what I have done all along. I was lighting and I was doing these very sculptural, quiet portraits.

Rob: So you weren’t in one of these magazines camp? You weren’t in the National Geographic or the Life or the…

Dan: Not at all.

Rob: You were your own style, your own vision.

Dan: That’s what was so magical about it.

Rob: Now how did you come at that though?

Dan: I was able to follow my whimsy knowing that there was more of an acceptance of that kind of work that was going on. People were open to that. I mean Eric Meola and Pete Turner, they were doing all that innovative stuff with color, do you know Michel Tcherevkoff? He was this guy, you look at it now, and it’s really silly, it was like a circuit board and like a double print where there’s a circuit board at sunset. It was all that crazy like 70’s and 80’s stuff.

Rob: [laughs] Oh! That is so cool.

Dan: But back then it was like, “Oh man how did he do…” You know, it was pre-digital, right? So Pete Turner is doing those things where he is like sandwiching slides together and making dupes of them using gels and all this crap and it is like “Whoa.” Art Kane was doing all that really wide-angle, exterior stuff with the strobe. It was kind of when people started to really have the kind of individual voice of photography. I mean that started in the 70’s and became…it became what it is now.

I think the problem with a lot of that stuff was it was really technique based. I figured that if I really want to stay stimulated and stay busy, the best way to do it was to be diverse, and to hone as many skills as possible. And to try to develop a sensibility rather than a style, because I feel like style is, well, you certainly have your toolbox, and you certainly can go into things and have a Plan A, but I feel like style is largely based in technique. And to have a ‘voice’, really isn’t. If you think about a drawing or painting analogy, you can draw in pencil, or pastels, and then you can get into charcoals and get into watercolors, or gouache, or acrylic, and then oil – and all of those techniques are going to inform, on some level, what the physical nature of the thing is. But what you’re saying is vastly different. So, meanings are carried.

You know, it’s funny, you either get this, or don’t really at all. You tell people you’re a photographer, and they say, “Oh, what kind of camera do you use?” It’s like asking Eddie Van Halen “What kind of guitar do you play?” or, “Yeah, I heard one of your records, man, you must have a killer guitar.” It’s not the camera, it’s the operator. But, with photography, as with a lot of things, the tools that you choose inform the aesthetic, to an extent. The 35mm looks different than 4×5, so the tools will vary, but the voice needs to be consistent. I started feeling like you get hired for your opinion. Wherever you come back with is your take on that experience.

Rob: So, you go to L.A., and what happens there? How much different is it compared to NYC?

Dan: Totally different. I still know way more people in New York than I do in Texas, and way more people in New York than I know in California. I feel like I’m connected to that pulse. So when I moved to L.A., my New York people that I’ve been working with just started giving me assignments. But like anywhere you’ve got to pay your dues. I know publicists are much more venomous now than they ever were, and you have to have approval, and I remember these horrible conversations where it’s like, “well, who have you shot lately?” I started out shooting TV guys and back then, it had a much more negative connotation than it does now, TV has definitely improved.

Rob: So did you have to start all over in L.A.?

Dan: Yeah, absolutely.

Rob: You started at the bottom in L.A., after working with Fred Woodward at Rolling Stone in New York?

Dan: People have asked me, “what was your first big break?” ‘Break’ is probably a weird term, because all of those things collectively were a part of the progression, but Kathy Ryan called. I’d never dealt with her before, this was all of 20 years ago. She said, “This is Kathy Ryan from the New York Times, ” and I was thrilled! I’d never even sent my portfolio to her. That was almost like untouchable territory; the reputation that the Times had, and has always had, its very photo-driven. So when she called then, she asked me to shoot Denzel Washington. That for me, was kind of a landmark, because I did several things there that I’d never really done. I built a big set to shoot in.

Rob: That was where you first constructed that signature set of yours?

Don: It was the first time ever.

Rob: Tell me about the Denzel picture, because it has a lot of your signature style in there, right? From the color of the walls, to the construction, the lighting, the body position, the head position. All this kind stuff is Dan Winters. So how do you arrive at that?

Dan: You’re absolutely right. I’ll tell you about the color thing, because that’s interesting for me, because then magazines ran a lot of black-and-white in the late 80s and early 90s. I shot a lot of black-and-white stuff back then and it was one of those things where you’d get a job and you were just of crossing fingers that they didn’t say “We need color.” That was the last part of the conversation “OK, well we’re going to need color on this.”

Rob: They just spring it on you, right?

Dan: Yeah, “I can’t believe I have to shoot color.” So it was one of those things that really, I realized “OK, I’ve got to make peace with this, and I’ve got to learn how to control it. I really have to learn this, man, because this is the reality.” As strong as I felt like I loved a lot if the black-and-white stuff that I was doing was, it was my reality that if I was going to be moving up, in terms of shooting, and the level of the clients I was shooting with, I was going to have to do color.

So I started thinking about color, thinking about palate. When I worked at a newspaper, every day we had a daily color front page. At one point, we all had to learn how to print color in the darkroom. We all hated it. All the photographers were like “Screw this, man.” [laughter] I remember having conversations with Kathy and I remember her saying ” I’m going to need color on this.” I was like “All right,” so I just started thinking about palette, and thinking about how to do it.

Also back then, I can get people to go to locations a lot easier now, but, back then it was, “It’s got to be in Hollywood, you’ve got this amount of time, and it’s got to be in a studio.” I had a small studio in Hollywood, so I thought “I really want to do something that feels like another world.” I was a carpenter for a long time, and I grew up building stuff. So I thought “I’m going to build a set.”

I’m a huge fan of vernacular photography and Birney Imes did a book right around that time called “Juke Joint” and it was a book of all these juke joints that were in the South. They were these drinking establishments and pool halls for black men, and they were usually pretty low rent, old and really had a lot of character. He went all through the South and documented these, and I was really effected by those photographs in that book and that aesthetic, and I was like, “God, where is this? I want to see this place.”

I built that set with the idea in mind that if no one knew where it was shot or what the conditions of the shoot were, and they just saw the picture, it would be up to their imagination where it was. And no one was making those kinds of pictures. No one was building sets like that.

I was definitely influenced by Kubrick and his use of forced perspective and lens and set relationships and all that stuff. So, I just started messing around with all that stuff.

denzel550

Rob: Ok, but how is it, though, for your first assignment for the most important magazine in the country, you decide to build a set and try all this out for the very first time?

Dan: You know what?

Rob: You just went for it?

Dan: I’ve joked about this before, and I feel a couple things about it. One is, I never am nervous about getting held back. I feel like when you’re a pro, you know when you got it and you have the skill to get it. And so, I just thought it through. I joke sometimes about how, “shoots are just a formality.” You come up with this idea and you work it out in your head, and the execution of it is the formality. And that one, I worked it out in my head.

Rob: Did Kathy know you were going to do all this?

Dan: No, she had no idea what I was going to turn out.

Rob: She just got the film in and went, “Oh, my god”?

Dan: She freaked out. She started giving me work right away, and so did Greg Pond at “Details”

Rob: He saw it and he freaked out?

Dan: He freaked out. He called me immediately, and he said, “I want you to do pictures like this for me.” And so, the next thing I did like that was Perry Ferrell for him, where he’s upside down in this room and he’s reaching for this record, and we built the set upside down.

Rob: Oh, yeah. I remember that one. That was your first Details shot.

Dan: That was the first thing I did for Greg, and so that started a long relationship with Greg, too. The whole time, Greg went through several editors.

Then “Vibe” came out right at that time, too, and the photo editor at “Vibe” was George Pitts. Gary Koepke called me and said, “We’re doing this magazine, It’s called ‘Vibe.’ It’s about hip-hop and we want you to shoot the first cover.” They’d done a trial cover that Albert Watson had shot of Treach from Naughty by Nature then the first actual newsstand cover was Snoop, and they had me shoot it. And then I shot the next four.

It’s interesting because I feel like relationships are a huge part of any profession, and I think the relationships are born out of mutual respect and a trust, really, because these people are professionals. They’re not going to be screwing around. You’ve got to know the person is going to bring something back every time, because I’m spending a whole bunch of money getting somewhere or building the set or this or that.

And the “Details” stuff, back then we were burning money on shoots. It was crazy money. There was money floating around. It’s not like I was making a bunch, but anything I could imagine Greg would say yeah. There was no restraint.

Rob: I need a helicopter and a crane.

Dan: Literally.

Rob: And a water truck.

Dan: Totally, I did water truck. You could get anything you wanted. So, that was awesome.

But, ultimately, it’s about, making the call and this guy’s going to try as hard as he can; he’s going to bring back the best thing he can possibly bring back. To use a baseball analogy, you get up to bat, you’re swinging for the fence every time, right? You’re not trying to hit singles. You want to get on base, so sometimes you get singles, but ultimately, you want to be getting home runs. I’ve gotten a few and a lot of doubles and triples, and some singles. You get them. You strike out. I’ve had fucking disasters well, not disasters but things that definitely turned out way differently than the plan going into it. But, I think then that’s when I learn.

You can have a Plan A, but, man, you better be open to Plan B because Plan A can seriously fall short of your expectations very quickly.

I just started doing all that work in the ’90s, and it was incredible. There was a lot of advertising, and I started doing music videos and directed a bunch of commercials and a bunch of music videos. I was doing all kinds of stuff. I was busy.

But, the truth is, I was tap dancing as fast as I could, and I was really missing a lot of what I really enjoy and embrace now. When Dylan was born, I was working so much that I missed a lot of his early childhood. I think for some reason I had this idea that it was just not fleeting. It was like this thing, I have a kid, so I’m always going to have a kid. Suddenly you realize, holy shit, all of this is happening and I’m not around. What did Lennon say in that one song? “Life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” That’s so true. That’s why Kathryn and I moved to Austin.

PART 3 TOMORROW

There Are 31 Comments On This Article.

  1. Always respected the work, and that respect is amplified hearing the stories and the character – what an awesome conversation Rob! Made my day.

    “…develop a sensibility rather than a style, because I feel like style is, well, you certainly have your toolbox, and you certainly can go into things and have a Plan A, but I feel like style is largely based in technique. And to have a ‘voice’, really isn’t.”
    “…you get hired for your opinion. Wherever you come back with is your take on that experience.”

  2. This is a really great interview. Best Dan Winters interview I’ve read yet, big fan of the guy. Great work, Rob. You’re hitting a home run with this one. :)

  3. I read a lot of articles and posts and this is awesome. I think this is the best interviewe of a photographer that I have read. Better than Firestones interviews of Adams in the late 70’s and that was for TV.

    Awesome Rob! Freaking Awesome!

  4. I can not agree more with the comments. Really great!

    I also completely relate to much of what eh says and especially the last paragraph about his Son. Very true. We can get caught up riding the wave of success. You have to be very disciplined about keeping your life balance and creative balance.

  5. Donnor Party

    Those were the days. Great interview, made me whistful for the old New York, even the old LA!

  6. I like it.. The talk about hunting down the work is great. I’m on the mindset that You’ll never find a good lead in the paper or on Craigslist.. making waves is part of the game and sometimes someones ego gets smooshed too.

  7. Man, being a photographer on it’s own seems like a sad, doomed profession. Here you are, helping to make these people stars. You put your whole life into making them household names. Look at Dan’s book–famous actors! Claim to fame.
    But really, the best you can do for yourself is to become kind of known among other photographers. Unless you do ruthless self promotion, like Terry (and be considered a douche for it), or be one of the couple exception like Helmut or Guy (who are still hidden behind their images and are only known by relatively few people).

    Seems like the key is to maybe become a part of some scene and not limit yourself to photography only, but be a driving force of lifestyle and art.

    Don’t know. just frustrating.

  8. @regina, his book is far from a traditional book of famous people. look at it again. it is a unique series of images that i haven’t seen living together in book form to date. also, look at his site. far more work than celebs.it looks like the guy is far from being in a sad pursuit.

    • @tietie,
      I agree. his personal work is great. But most people know him b/c of his celebrity images. And these are also used to advertise him. Look even in this very article. Why does it show so many celebrity images to validate him to general public–his other work is so much more interesting. But the fate of many a photographer (and other careers i suppose) is to hide behind others and help glorify them. I guess that’s almost in the definition of the profession so it’s pointless to be upset.

      It’s just sad when you work so hard and someone else gets the creative credit for the image. Think of, I don’t know, lady gaga or klaus nomi. They have/had a whole creative crew helping them out.

  9. What an awesome interview! I haven’t read part 3 yet but now I can’t wait to.

    I’m a huge fan of Mr. Winters and I try to read every article about him that I can. Every time he speaks, I find something useful or inspiring to walk away with. This has been the best interview I’ve read yet. Keep up the awesome work!

    Oh, and I love that B&W of Dan above, very cool inclusion.