When photographer Dan Winters was first asked to shoot for Texas Monthly in the late eighties he was living in New York and was a complete stranger to the magazine. Today Winters is an Austinite and one of Texas Monthly’s biggest visual contributors. Here Winters talks about the breath of his portfolio, the ultimate portrait, and the different creative processes involved in capturing the essence of a small murder-scarred town and a big-time Hollywood star.
texasmonthly.com: What initially sparked your interest in photography? How would you describe your first stab it? How did your style evolve?
Dan Winters: I started taking pictures when I was 10 years old in 4-H. The changes are too laborious to go into—I mean I’ve done it for 32 years.
texasmonthly.com: Your endeavors haven’t been limited to photography. Can you describe your involvement in other media? What motivates you to approach art in new ways?
DW: There was a period when I did a lot of commercials and videos and shot some movies, but I [always remained] actively involved in photography. I was exploring other avenues. I [also] do sculpture and drawing, and I’ve done a lot of magazine illustration.
texasmonthly.com: Parts of your portfolio resemble a page torn from a Hollywood yearbook, filled with stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, and Jim Carrey. It’s clear why the public is interested in these figures, but what makes celebrities interesting subjects from a photographer’s view?
DW: Usually I only do people I want to shoot. With actors and other artists, regardless of the media, the sensibility tends to be similar—it’s like collaborating with another artist, so for me, it’s a pleasure. I love the artistic sensibility or temperament, plus those people are really adept at being subject matter for a lens—there’s a real understanding of the process.
texasmonthly.com: If you could photograph anyone in history who would it be and why?
DW: I would say God, but I don’t know if God’s a historical figure. That’s a joke. Nikola Tesla. He’s the most interesting historical figure I’ve come across, and I read a ton of biography.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve worked quite a bit with Texas Monthly, shooting everything from Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid to barbecue. How did you become acquainted with the magazine and what was your first assignment?
DW: I was at a conference and so was [former] art director D.J. Stout. He approached me afterward and asked me if I’d be interested. At the time, I was living in New York and didn’t know about Texas Monthly. My first assignment was in ’91. It was a cover story on a prison murder in Huntsville. The cover image was a picture of a guy in a solitary confinement cell.
texasmonthly.com: You shot the cover photo and worked on the McAllen story for the April issue of Texas Monthly. What kind of direction did you receive from creative director Scott Dadich for these assignments? How did you approach each subject?
DW: The thing about Scott is that we have a conversation about what [the story’s] about and what it feels like, and we’ll hammer out an idea. For McAllen, I had an idea already. I shot it with an eight-by-ten camera—it’s a big gigantic camera about four times the [normal] size. So that was interesting in terms of the approach. I went to McAllen by myself because when I do those kinds of stories, I try to make it a simple production so that I can immerse myself and make local contacts instead of having someone set everything up and just showing up.
I know all that sounds like it may not affect the outcome, but it really does—there’s a frame of mind. I look at things as not style but sensibility. Style you apply to a thing to give it direction and it can’t translate from thing to thing—it tends to be more surface. I think sensibility is the ability to walk into any situation and apply your opinion or take on something. I teach a lot, and I always tell my students that you’re better off knowing how you react to things rather than just [coming] up with one way to approach things and if all your variables aren’t in place you fall short.
texasmonthly.com: What were you trying to express with the cover shot of Thomas Haden Church?
DW: Scott and I talked about it, and I think the original idea involved a red Saab, a nod to Sideways. But Church is the real-deal cowboy—he has several thousand acres of ranchland—so it didn’t seem fitting to put him with the red Saab. We had this conversation on the way down that it felt like it was going to be a little forced to put him with this car when he’s a cattle rancher and he has these beat-up trucks—the cool thing about my conversations with Scott is that we can think out loud—so we agreed that this wouldn’t work. I said, “If this was for a different magazine where we were trying to glitz him up, it’d be different, but if we can’t be honest about his roots for this magazine, come on.” So we just shot him on the road with his old ranch truck and his normal clothes. No makeup. No hair. The idea was to give some sort of nod to the road—you see the road, and he’s leaning on his truck. It was really to convey the essence of the issue—drives in Texas.
texasmonthly.com: Were you familiar with the story of Irene Garza’s murder before you shot the McAllen photos? What was your impression of the town?
DW: No. I had no idea. I found out about the story a few months ago because Scott called me well in advance and told me that Pam Colloff was working on it. So I had lunch with Pam, and she filled me in on everything. I went down there and immersed myself for four days. I made contact with the people I needed to make contact with before I went down there.
For the most part, this story is about a 45-year-old crime, so you have to really think about how to communicate. I set a tone for the piece that gets the reader into the mindset of the remains—the residual effect on a town. It’s more than a canal where the body was found. How do you make the canal speak about what happened? What would that look like? I was really happy with it. It’s hard to present imagery that’s compelling. Certainly the piece holds a lot of interesting information, and it’s emotionally effective. Pam’s got the luxury of retrospect, of accessing the information that exists and putting it together. [A photographer] is subject to what the information presents before him. What I find works the best is to try to make compelling imagery that will be augmented by the piece. I could show you photos of the canal all day long that would have an appeal, but if I told you the story of the canal, it would affect you on a whole different level.
texasmonthly.com: The April issue highlights your ability to photograph anyone from John Doe to celebrities. Would you rather photograph the everyday man or the everyone-wants-to-be-him man?
DW: One of the beauties of photography is it offers you a window into a lot of different worlds. Overexposure to either of those is undesirable, so it’s great I can do both, and I really make it a point to do both. The public that consumes your work wants to have a grasp of what it is you do, and I feel if you can keep yourself a little bit enigmatic, it works really well. I think the most high-profile work I do is celebrity portraiture. Because of the relationship between celebrity and society, it adds credibility to someone if they can do that. I can tell you that I went to McAllen, but if I told you that I shot Nicole Kidman last week, you’d be like, “You’re kidding!” Ultimately, what we do with celebrities is we project onto them. We objectify them. We don’t know them as human beings. The answer is, I like both. There’s something about going to McAllen and kind of inventing something that’s really appealing to me, but I wouldn’t want to do that all the time—it’s the idea of getting balanced.