The Meaning of Light

The tale of Dan Winters soaring career and singular body of work, and his return to simplicity in portraiture.

By Ellis Vener
Images By Dan Winters
First published in April 2005

Assisting Chris Callis in the late 1980s showed Dan Winters that “you have to grasp the basic physical laws of light—the inverse proportion law, that the angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence, that light travels in a straight line—until you to

Pinning down Dan Winters for an interview is an adventure in scheduling. When I first called, he was heading down to South Texas, then to Arizona on a week-long assignment for Texas Monthly, scheduling shoots for actor Ewan McGregor, the rock band Foo Fighters, and planning a 10-day shoot in Japan with his 11-year-old son. Meanwhile, he was busy in the darkroom printing images for a book in progress, and editing a shoot for a Fast Company magazine feature on a company called Despair.com.

Working out of both Los Angeles and Austin, Winters stays booked with editorial commissions from GQ, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and others. He shoots ad campaigns for major corporations like Nike, Microsoft, and Sony, and CD covers and posters for Warner Brothers, Paramount, DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox, RCA and A&M. He’s earned over 100 national and international awards, and citations in American Photography, Communication Arts, and the Photo District News annuals. And he hasn’t done any self-promotion since his career launch in 1988.

When we did synchronize our schedules, we began with a conversation about the eloquent and intriguing use of light in Winters’ portraits. These are intellectual, character-driven works that portray the subjects in a way that’s direct yet mysterious, affecting yet not overblown.

“The best way to learn about lighting is to turn a light on and look at what it’s doing. I can draw diagrams… and none of them will apply unless you approach photography as a totally mechanical process. When you really get a handle on technique and it becomes second nature, you can run through variations really quickly.”

Assisting Chris Callis in the late 1980s showed Winters that “you have to grasp the basic physical laws of light—the inverse proportion law, that the angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence, that light travels in a straight line—until you totally know what you can do, and absolutely predict what’s going to happen.”

That, he adds, comes only with time and repeated experience. “I like the idea that light augments whatever I’m trying to say, that I can transform a location, and the lighting often comes out of necessity. I nearly always shoot 4x5, at f/32 or f/45 for really deep focus, and I need to light. With a portrait, you just can’t stick the subject by a window and do an 8-second exposure, you have to light.”

Winters is best known for editorial portraits of actors and musicians, whose time is tightly budgeted. Technical intuition is vital. He has to be able to concentrate on what’s important in the photograph, the relationship between subject and photographer, and have the acuity to seize what Winters’ mentor Gregory Heisler calls “the appropriate response to the assignment.”

“You’ve got to be flexible and embrace the subject, the location, the nuances of the story, the needs of the magazine, the constraints the subject puts on the shoot with regard to the amount of time they can give you, if they need makeup, styling or wardrobe, and if they have location demands,” says Winters. “Every situation dictates a unique set of criteria and your job is to react accordingly. I take everyone’s needs into consideration and make judgments. That’s not to say I compromise—I keep myself in the equation because I want to get something out of the shoot, too. My goal is to make it work so that everyone walks away feeling satisfied.”

In general, Winters’ subjects are either savvy about being photographed and are easy to work with, or have no experience in being photographed and feel awkward in front of the camera.

“With people who are experienced, I have things working for me and things working against me,” says Winters. Maybe the last five times they were being photographed weren’t pleasurable experiences, or didn’t yield the results they were after. If their behavior is guarded when they come to the set, “Obviously it influences my relationship with them right off the bat,” he says.

With both types, Winters begins by finding common ground on which to engage them—who they both know, what interests they share.

“As photographers, we are hired for our opinions to a certain extent. It will be a visual take, a very subjective interpretation,” says Winters. “I really think the strongest ally (above any technique) any photographer can have is the ability to really look at something and formulate an opinion about it. My goal is to have enough freedom with my clients to know that I am using my judgment in the best way I can, and that they know I’m working hard for them.”

Once known for heavy conceptualization, and massive production work, Winters says that now, “I’m not interested in dragging people through the dog-and-pony show. I’ve done that. That whole approach now feels insincere, over-produced. I work now at creating a set that is intimate and calm.”

Beyond doing portraits, Winters refreshes his outlook and style by continually working on bodies of work in various photographic genres, such as scientific subjects, architectural studies, interiors, and street photography.

“When I started, I didn’t think that a photographer had to be a specialist in just one field,” says Winters. “I’ve always thought that would be completely brainless. I went into photography trying to acquire a diverse palette. Pragmatically, I also realized that if there’s one constant need in photography, it’s portraiture. People are ever-evolving, changing their look, and there are constantly new people who want portraits.”

Dan Winters’ success can in part be attributed to his uncurbed enthusiasm for the art of photography. “It’s how I express the passion in my life. It’s the one thing I’ve known since I was a kid. I get up every day and that’s what I do, make photographs, whether I’m being paid to or not. I love it, love it, love it.”

Winters’ Equipment:
Camera and lenses: 4x5 Sinar F view cameras with 90-, 110-, 120-, 135-, 150-, 180-, 210-, 240- and 360mm lenses—all but the 110mm from Rodenstock.

Film: Kodak Professional Portra 160VC color negative or T-Max 100 black-and-white; both types in Readyload packets, and Polaroid Type 55 (BW) and Type 59 (color). Nardulli labs in Los Angeles processes most of the film; the balance is done by Holland’s in Austin.

Lighting: Dyna-Light M2000 packs and heads, for battery powered flash; Lumadynes and occasionally 2 Profoto 7B kits.

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