Dan Winters, who shot this month's photo essay, "Cuts Above," discusses finding the right piece of meat.
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texasmonthly.com: Where did the idea for the insect-display-case look come from?
Dan Winters: I had been doing these photographs of insect collections for quite a while, and we actually have a photograph of an insect collection that this directly references, on the green background exactly how this looks. Scott Dadich [Texas Monthly‘s art director] was like, “Wow, what if we did barbecue like that?” Basically the idea was “Wow, look at Johnny’s barbecue collection,” which we thought was really interesting because the scientific presentation of objects is so non-contextual, it removes the subject completely from its origin. So the idea of taking these pieces of barbecue and treating them as specimens is a very atypical approach to food photography—the MO [modus operandi] with food photography usually is to make it look as appetizing as possible. We’d been talking about it for more than a year, and then about a month and a half ago we had a meeting; Scott, Gary Tanhauser, and I—the three individuals who collaborated on this—drew up life-size schematics of the boxes and built them to the proportions of the page so that they filled it entirely. We decided we’d do an opening page box, a vertical page box, and a double-page spread box. Gary built those at our shop referencing a specimen box that Scott found. We got insect mounting pins and little boxes for the moth crystals. Everything in there is like spot-on for an insect collection. I used to collect insects, so I have this knowledge of insect stuff. We really stayed true to that scientific aesthetic for display and labeled everything. I have a lot of experience with mounting insects and pinning, so I was pretty adept at how to lay out the boxes and present them. Scott and I contributed equally on how to lay out the boxes. It’s a pretty standard technique for dry-mounting any kind of scientific artifact, although what we adhered to was a definite entomological approach.
texasmonthly.com: It seems like taking things out of their context, finding a surprising or unexpected way to look at them, is a common thread in your work.
DW: Yeah, absolutely. The idea of trying not to fight the thing, but rather to embrace it—this is what it is. Obviously, in this case, we are trying to take the subject out of context. But it really is kind of a pure representation—like meat—not the really fuzzy food-photography approach where everything’s out of focus with a little thin line in focus and the idea is for it to be really mouth-watering and alluring. We didn’t want to make them look repulsive, but our agenda was not to make them very seductive either. I like the idea that it’s just an objective look.
texasmonthly.com: Did you learn anything about meat shooting this story?
DW: Actually, I stopped eating meat about seven months ago; I just eat fish and occasionally a little chicken here and there, but for the most part, I just eat tuna and the like. My studio is in Driftwood, less than a mile from the Salt Lick [a barbecue restaurant], and I think I totally OD’d on meat. Like, “You know what, I cannot even look at meat anymore.” So it was really funny that we had all this barbecue here, and I actually did sneak a couple bites of a pork chop—the one from Brady in the opening shot was the most delectable-looking thing I had ever seen. Of all barbecue, pork chops are definitely my favorite.
The smell of the production permeated through every inch of the studio, so I wasn’t struggling with wanting to eat the subject matter. Whatever we were done with I wanted to get out of the studio as soon as possible. I had my housekeeper come the next day and clean the entire studio, literally scrub the floors with a brush.
The only problem was that I brought my dog, Pilgrim, who I never bring to the studio, with me. My wife and son were in California at the time, and I was charged with watching Pilgrim, so it just happened that the day I brought him was the hardest day in the world for him to resist. He’s a little dachshund, and he was running around wanting food; the entire place just reeked of meat. It was challenging for him; he probably struggled more than anybody that day. And we had a hard time getting started that day. No more so than normal for something like this, because oftentimes, once you get the first couple shots off, there’s a certain established aesthetic that you apply to the thing. I think the struggle is really to find your stride and commit, and go, “Okay, we’re actually shooting now.” You play around with the first one for quite a while, think about it. But once that was done, it seemed to flow unbelievably well. I think we got our first shot off around noon, and we were done by about seven. But we started at eight in the morning.
texasmonthly.com: How much do you struggle with coming up with a new way to shoot on each story?
DW: There’s a lot of crossover; it’s definitely to a certain extent self-referential. At this point, I feel very comfortable with my working process, so I pretty much know at a given time what things I respond to. I know the kind of things I like and don’t like, the kind of environments I like to shoot in, and the ways I like to light. So it’s kind of a flow; I just let it evolve. I don’t really plan a lot. Something like this, obviously, requires a lot of planning—certain things require more planning than others—but you just think about the subject. It’s partially trying to apply a certain idea to the thing but equally important to embrace what the thing is rather than fight it. Obviously, in the barbecue it’s completely imposed, but I think in a really funny way.
texasmonthly.com: How did you choose which cuts of meat to use in each shot?
DW: I think the main selections were determined by the jury that sampled all the different barbecue places—a group of Texas Monthly writers. They whittled it down to the top ten, which were asked to submit meat. And after that, it was solely on an aesthetic basis, because we knew the meat we had in front of us was all fair game—no pun intended.
texasmonthly.com: The case of sausages is one of the most stirring images I’ve seen in a long time.
DW: It’s phenomenal, isn’t it? The case of sausages is actually my favorite one. I love that photograph and it’s just so bizarre. Compositionally, we played with that for a long time because I love the way the thing awkwardly meanders around that box. There never seems to be any rhyme or reason. Symmetry is the impetus behind some of the insect mounting, like nice even rows, trying to make everything look kind of balanced. But for the most part, it’s just no rhyme or reason, and that’s the way that one felt to me.
texasmonthly.com: What do you like about shooting in Texas?
DW: It’s wonderful that the region we cover is diverse and has a rich tradition. I’ve been shooting for Texas Monthly for quite some time, and if you look back at the annals of the magazine, there have been something like fifteen or sixteen barbecue stories. So that’s a lot of barbecue, and you’re constantly having to reinvent the same subject matter over and over.
texasmonthly.com: What do you look for when you’re out shooting on your own time?
DW: I call it walking around taking pictures, just noticing things and taking pictures of them. I have a whole body of work, from everything as diverse as puddles in a rainstorm in the middle of a road, which I just shot last week, to a dried cicada skin on a tree. Just little things I notice, kind of being aware. I think that’s a big part of photography, the idea that it really heightens your visual awareness. Another writer, Cecilia Ballí, and I were out on assignment in Juárez doing a piece, and there was a point where she said something about the fact that I stopped every five feet when we were walking. She said, “God, you just keep noticing everything.” I said, “You know, I have to notice everything.” I am completely at the mercy of being presented with something. You can write in retrospect, you can write based on several sources, you can interpolate things, you can put a story together based on talking to people. I have to be confronted with a thing in order to make a photograph of it. There’s definitely a difference just in the way you navigate your physical environment.