“Stay away from trends. Attempt to make images that stand the test of time. Images that will remain relevant long after you have passed.”
American photographer Dan Winters is one of the finest practitioners of our time whose profoundly arresting portraiture articulately conveys the essence of the subject.
His interest in photography began during his childhood, ignited by a transformative experience he had in a darkroom that belonged to his friend’s father.
“I was visiting their home and his father was printing and asked if we would like to come in and observe while he was working. The magic that I witnessed that day left an indelible mark on me.”
He went on to study photography at Moorpark College in Southern California, before moving to Munich to complete his formal education at Ludwig Maximilian University. He subsequently returned to his home county of Ventura in California and began his career working as a photojournalist. After winning a number of regional awards, he relocated to New York City, a lodestone for so many great practitioners before him, and found it fertile ground. He quickly established himself as a freelance photographer undertaking editorial assignments for a host of notable publications.
Throughout the course of his distinguished career, he has photographed some of the most prominent names in film, politics, music, and sport, each of whom he transcribes with the same striking veracity, dexterity, and attention to detail.
He recently photographed Angelie Jolie covered with Honey Bees (to illustrate an article on World Bee Day for National Geographic) a homage to Richard Avedon’s 1981 depiction of beekeeper, Ronald Fischer. In order to better understand the process behind Avedon’s image, one of Dan Winters’ friends got in touch with Fischer whose insights and advice helped inform Winters’ approach, resulting in a uniquely powerful image that serves as a fitting tribute to the original.
“By placing liquid Queen Pheromone directly on Angelina’s skin, the bees think that they are in the presence of a queen and this keeps them calm. Angelina stood nearly motionless for eighteen minutes as bees crawled all over her body, never receiving a single sting while in front of the camera”
Like so many of his distinguished subjects, his works are striking, iconic, and easily identifiable, pervaded with a brooding intensity that grips the viewer from the outset. His comprehension of light and form is extraordinary; subjects express a sculptural quality belying the supposed limitations of still imagery.
His illustrious cast is often framed against austere backdrops: pieces of tattered cloth; crumbling walls, or perched on tattered furniture, recalling the work of the great Irving Penn (one of the finest exponents of portraiture in the medium’s history) who utilized similar milieux as a means of further directing the viewer’s attention toward the sitter.
In one of several depictions of Ryan Gosling, Winters stood the Canadian actor at the intersection of two angled walls, a technique Penn employed in numerous images. The result is an acutely intense image with an almost claustrophobic quality that engenders a sense of closeness between viewer and subject.
Though his approach varies depending on the task at hand, it may seem somewhat surprising (considering the relative rigidity of the studio format that dominates his oeuvre) that Dan Winters says he “relies heavily on fluidity”.
“The most important tool for any artist is developing an internal dialogue. This process of understanding one’s creative voice is the most essential ingredient. If we understand why we make creative choices it allows us to become more consistent with our work. It is important to understand that this is an ever-changing process and one that will evolve throughout one’s creative path. It’s important to continue to grow for to lapse into formula is to die a small death as an artist.”
Likewise, he remains flexible when it comes to his chosen accouterments, utilizing various tools according to the established intent. He first turned to digital in 2013, and in his own words ‘has not looked back since’, owing both to the capabilities on offer which he expresses ‘far exceed that of film’, and the comparably minuscule environmental impact.
Dan Winters may owe much of his renown to his portraiture, but like so many of his eminent forebears, his eye never rests, and alongside his editorial and commercial work, he carries out personal projects and captures candid imagery in his everyday surroundings. He has photographed family members, friends, and neighbors; the residents and dystopian landscapes of the Permian Basin in the southwestern US, and street gangs in Texas, among others. Furthermore, in 2016, The Grey Ghost, a collection of photographs he captured on the streets of New York during the late 80s and 90s, was published by Rocky Nook.
He has won over one hundred awards throughout his career, notably, the World Press Photo Award in the Arts and Entertainment category in 2003, and the prestigious Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography.
However, though the landscape of the medium may have changed dramatically, not least due to the proliferation of social media, and the consequent ubiquity of imagery, his distinct artistic voice continues to cut through the cacophony: forthright, eloquent, and profound.
“It’s important as artists to stay true to the path that we are on. Work within our true self and pay attention to our developing sensibility. Stay away from trends. Attempt to make images that stand the test of time. Images that will remain relevant long after you have passed. Focus on your voice and your vision. Make honest images that are connected to humanity. That’s not to say that a bit of fun here and there isn’t welcome.”
All images © Dan Winters
Dan Winters was judge of our Portrait Award in November 2021. You can view the results here.