Photographer whose works have included President Obama, Tupac, Bono coming to San Diego

Whether you are an avid photographer, enjoy capturing moments with your smartphone, or simply love the art of photography, there is an event coming you will not want to miss. On Tuesday, March 6, the Museum of Photographic Arts welcomes award-winning photographer Dan Winters for a presentation and talk with the public.

To brag a bit about the photographer, Winters’ work has been featured in GQ, Vanity Fair, TIME, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and WIRED. He has photographed innumerable celebrities, including former President Barack Obama, Bono, Michael Jordan, Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman and the late Tupac Shakur. His clients include HBO, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and Target, to name a few.

PACIFIC recently caught up with the renowned photographer between shoots to find out how he does it all, his thoughts on the Instagram phenomenon, and his tips for becoming a better photographer.

PACIFIC: Your portraits range from the traditional to the whimsical. How do you decide how you will photograph? Is it a gut feeling?

DAN WINTERS: You ask yourself, what is this particular job, what is appropriate, and how do we represent these individuals? It might be a story about being a “washout,” like the shoot with Walton Goggins (for GQ). Or something like Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game, where I brought in all of the props except the enigma machine, and he had a contemporary wardrobe but it still had the feel of the period. You find the appropriate response.

Your ability with light and shadow, a photographic chiaroscuro is stunning. Was that something that took years to perfect?

It has evolved. If I look at my portraits from 15 years ago, the plan of attack is amorphous. It develops, and I let it evolve organically. You can’t conjure as much in photography as painting. We have to have a subject. How are you going to interpret that surface? We start applying light. The thing about lighting, there is this idea you need to spend $50,000 on equipment, and it is absolutely not true. The idea of subtlety and nuance can be illustrated with simple tools. People look at the lights and not the light. You can use simple tools, but you need to be mindful. Establish intent.

When you see an actor that you haven’t photographed, do you instinctually imagine how you would photograph them?

No. I don’t even do it when I get the assignment. A lot of times it just comes to me. I try to keep it as simple as possible.

The photo of Tupac Shakur is profoundly quiet and introspective. Did you know that’s how you wanted to portray him or did it come organically out of the shoot?

I knew I was going to use that set. After that, we figured it out as we went. He was a great person and collaborator. You know what he wanted to listen to that day? Counting Crows. He taught me that day an important lesson: to look outside of your genre for inspiration.

You’ve photographed George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Did you feel the intensity of that transition when you photographed Obama in 2008? What was it like to photograph him eight years later?

I was a vocal advocate for him, and I was elated when he was elected. The filter I viewed both of my sessions with him was a historic one as history was being made. Our call time in 2008 was 5 a.m., and we shot for 20 minutes, and that was it. It felt amazing. After the last election, it felt like a sad moment for the country at large. I remember when my 2016 shoot with him at the White House ended, as he walked out of the room he turned back and smiled that smile, I felt a profound sadness, it really affected me emotionally.

If it’s possible, who has been your favorite person to photograph?

My son, hands down. I have a massive body of work that started when he was born, and he’s 24 now.

What are your thoughts on the Instagram, iPhone, “everyone’s a photographer” trend? Is the art of photography being lost?

We live in the most photographed time in history, however, because image archives are difficult to maintain, I fear it may be a fleeting one. What digital has done has allowed people who don’t know the craft of photography to make an acceptable photo. Now we know immediately if the photo turns out. You can apply a filter to an image and it becomes a memory, and you can do it with a push of a button. You can take pictures all day long with your phone, and think “hey, it’s cool,” but it’s not necessarily truth. Either an image works or it doesn't. A powerful photograph affects us on a deep and, at times, an indefinable way. 

Biggest influence in your career?

It changes, and it should. I remember as a young photographer, we had a book at our high school, and I remember the first photograph that floored me. It was Stieglitz’s Winter on 5th Avenue, and I remember feeling like I was standing there. It was the moment everything converged. Ansel Adams was also an influence early on and Harry Callahan, and then the Bauhaus. I have a deep appreciation for the arts. So, it evolves. You become influenced when you are ready to take it in.

We talked about how much more popular people’s faces seem to be in your work, and now in social media streams. Why do you think people are obsessed with portraits?

It’s nothing new. Look at a magazine rack from the 1930s. I think it's the idea of connecting to a person. We identify with other humans beings. The value we assign to celebrities is nothing new. It’s because we experience life through art and film, and now a lot of schlock. With celebrities, people connect on a film they were in, for instance. They allow for us to have a shared connection with the actor or personality is the conduit.

Outside of the portraits you are famous for, what other topics are passionate for you?

The documentaries, film, the bees — I’m a beekeeper. That work is important to me.

What your advice to young photographers looking up to your work?

Ask yourself: “Do you want to be a photographer for a living?” You need to think long and hard if this is your calling. You need to dedicate every moment of your life and it is highly likely that you won’t succeed. If, after asking yourself these questions, if you still want to do it, then you will be fine. But, it’s not easy to do. I still kill myself doing it.

What’s one tip you can give everyday folk to become better photographers?

Do it consciously. I see a lot of people walking around with cameras taking a laissez-faire approach and not really seeing. It's important to look and try to find the sacredness in what you are looking at. Read the books Beauty in Photography & Why People Photograph by Robert Adams and Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. They are beautiful.

To view more of Winters’ portraits, documentaries, studies and film, visit danwintersphoto.com.

An evening with Dan Winters

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 6

Cost: $15-25, available on eventbrite.com

Where: Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater at the Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park

More info: 619.238.7559 or apasd.org

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