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Sep 10, 2009

Master photographer Dan Winters caps an award-winning career with a collection of his life’s work.

By Matthew Schaeffer & Tara Kyle

In the shallow waters off a Fijian beach, photographer Dan Winters carries Sandra Bullock over his shoulder.

He sets her down on a rock while Winters’s wife and son get ready with a reflector and lighting equipment. Bullock stands patiently, adorned in an elaborately stitched purple and gray gown and self-styled hair and make-up, waiting for the water to rise.

Finally, there is a three-minute window when the tide covers the rock, making it look like Bullock is standing on the water, and Winters takes the shot. After appearing in the pages of Movieline magazine, the picture quickly became a classic.

For Winters, the shoot was his opportunity to create a defining image of the actress, one that would stand apart from the hundreds of pictures of her that are already available.

“My goal, doing portrait work, is to galvanize a lot of likenesses of familiar faces,” says Winters. “I really like the idea that they maybe will be perceived by the viewer as definitive images rather than as a part of the massive visual record a lot of these individuals already have.”

It’s an approach that has brought Winters dozens of honors, including the World Press Photo Award and the Alfred Eisenstadt Award for Magazine Photography, along with regular commissions from such venues for great portrait photography as Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone.

Almost two decades of Winters’s work is now on display in his first book, Periodical Photographs. And while celebrities provide the hook, the monograph also captures the much larger scope of his work, which includes stills of everything from hymenoptera and a hawk’s talon to a space shuttle launch.

For Winters, the book is an illustration of his ongoing effort to connect with whomever—or whatever—is on the other side of his lens.

“I think really honing a sensibility rather than focusing on style allows me to have a very diverse subject matter…Since early on, I really tried to focus on increasing the diversity of the subject matter that I worked with and to apply my opinion to the work.”

Over the years, one of the subjects Winters has returned to time and again is Americana. His interiors and exteriors of rural and urban areas constitute an effort to capture the country’s rich history and diversity, while “creating a document of something that is fleeting.”

“Those people and those settings are changing and disappearing,” he says. “And I really like the idea of creating a solid document of that period and that subject matter.”

The wish to preserve an evanescent moment is central to Winters’s work. Early in his career, he says, his roles as a professional photographer and photojournalist helped him grasp the combination of informational and aesthetic power a single image could exert. As he continued developing his craft, he was able to bring that force to his portraits.

“The idea of encapsulating a moment…of creating a person’s likeness and allowing the viewer to study that likeness—specifically of people who are within the public eye—and trying to create a moment with them that may be unexpected, I’ve stuck with that,” he says.

It has taken more than that purposeful approach and Winter’s technical proficiency to create such a variety of classic portraits, however.

Winters believes the indispensable attribute for a portrait photographer is what he calls “congeniality,” which allows his subjects—whether they are A-list actors, politicians or everyday people—to be at ease. How he creates that sense of comfort depends on the background of his subject, he says.

For instance, while actors often are easy to shoot because they are used to being in front of the lens, they can present their own unique challenges as well.

“I’m dealing with the baggage from the last ten photo shoots. Maybe the last guy played music really loud and expected them to dance around. So they’re coming into my shoot, and they may expect that there’s the same criteria,” Winters says.

He tries to circumvent this by emphasizing from the onset that they should view the experience as a portrait session rather than photo shoot. “I think that changes the mindset of the individual to a certain extent, and they understand that maybe they’re not really required to drive the bus—that I’ll drive the bus.”

Regardless of whom or what he’s shooting, his singular focus remains on the connection between himself and his subject. These relationships, whether forged for a lifetime or just the time it takes to capture another image, have become a defining component of his life and work.

“I have a friend who said to me one time, people aren’t going to remember the things you do, they’re going to remember how you make people feel. And I’ve always tried to adhere to that.”

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