13 Lessons Dan Winters Has Taught Me About Street Photography (Through “Road to Seeing”)
All photographs included in this article are copyrighted by Dan Winters.
My good friend Bill Reeves recently bought me a copy of “Road to Seeing” by Dan Winters. I’ve always known Dan Winters as being a quite edgy portrait photographer– and had no idea that he was actually quite interested in street photography, and had quite deep philosophical views on photography.
When I first got the book, I was pretty astounded. It is a thick book (about four-fingers thick) and has amazing typography, binding, and the photos in the book look like small prints.
The other day, I devoured the book– it took me about 5 hours and I also jotted down some of my favorite quotes and ideas from Dan. Through this post- I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from Dan, while also giving an overview of the book.
Road to Seeing
For those of you who don’t know Dan Winters, he is an accomplished portrait photographer who is famous for taking iconic photos of celebrities and often making these ridiculous situations (and props) in his shoots.
In the book, “Road to Seeing” – Dan combines many different elements. It is part auto-biographical (he shares how he got started in photography, his philosophies, and trials and tribulations), part historical (he shares the history of photography and even street photography), and part educational (he shares the lessons he’s learned along the way).
All-in-all, it is a gorgeous book that I highly recommend everybody to invest in. As I often say, “Buy books, not gear.” I think books like this are good kicks-in-the-ass. After finishing the book, I was inspired to shoot– and went down Telegraph avenue in Berkeley and ended up shooting 2 rolls of Kodak Portra 400 on my Hasselblad (I’m starting to shoot more medium-format in Berkeley).
Dan Winters, September 1989, New York City
I’m not going to share too much personal background on Dan Winters (check out his biography on Wikipedia). But I will share my personal feelings of Dan Winters (at least based on what I read through the book).
In “Road to Seeing” – Dan is like your personal guide. He talks in a very down-to-earth way, and isn’t pretentious at all. For a guy with his fame and success, he just seems like your photography teacher who wants to tell you how it is. He is very open, transparent, and loving with his words and thoughts– and is trying his best to be as helpful to the reader as possible.
I loved his friendly and conversational tone throughout the book– he is certainly a guy I would like to have a nice cup of coffee with.
Lessons Dan Winters Has Taught Me About Street Photography
As I am a huge fan of education and learning– I want to distill some of the biggest lessons I personally gained from Dan Winters.
1. Thoughts on street photography
I didn’t know, but Dan Winters is hugely inspired by street photography. Not only did he start off doing a lot of street photography when he was younger– he still pursues it today as one of his favorite creative outlets.
When Dan was young and studying in Munich, he would shoot street photography nearly everyday. He shares in a below excerpt:
“I found myself exploring the city and making photographs nearly every day. Though not previously a practitioner of the form, I was a great admirer of street photography. Alfred Stieglitz’s work was my first conscious exposure to the genre. Henri Cartier-Bresson followed, and soon the floodgates opened. Robert Frank’s seminal ‘The Americans’ quickly became my bible. William Klein, Lee Friedlander, Tod Papageorge, William Eggleston, Harry Callahan, Ray Metzker, and many others. The list is a long one.”
Not only that, but his early beginning in street photography gave him the confidence in his work:
“The handful of pictures I made while in Munich that I felt were successful are important to me. It was during that period that a profound shift took place in my photography: I started to call myself a photographer. “I am” is incredibly empowering. My passion and my self were beginning to align.”
In 1988, Dan moved to NYC and while working full-time as an assistant, he spent much of his free time shooting street photography:
“It was difficult for me to work full-time as an assistant after having spent several years as a working photographer. My free time was consumed by photographing the streets of New York. Street shooting was a passion I first experienced in Munich, and to this day it remains one of my favorite creative outlets. In the ’80s, I spent untold hours with my friend Kevin, a gifted street photographer in his own right, wandering the concrete and steel canyons of Manhattan, camera in hand. From Coney Island to Prospect Park, from the Staten Island Ferry to the streets of Harlem (and all points in between), I amassed a substantial body of work during this period of my life.”
Dan even shares a funny story of bumping into Lee Friedlander, and learns the lesson: always have your camera with you.
“A highlight from these years was the time I ran into Lee Friedlander in SoHo. I have long admired Lee’s street work, and I marvel at his ability to capture his surroundings so succinctly. It was a chance encounter– I was riding my bike to a nearby hardware store when I immediately recognized him from the self-portraits published in his seminal book Lee Friedlander Photographs. I said something ridiculous like, ”Hi, I’m the New York chapter president of the Lee Friedlander fan club.“ My attempt at levity did not go unnoticed– he let out a hearty laugh and asked me where my camera was. When I told him it was at my studio, he said that it wasn’t doing me any good there. “You should always carry it,” he said as he continued on his way. Solid advice.”
Street photography trained him in many different ways: to learn how to see, to be patient, and to see photographic potential in everything:
“Cities are in constant motion. I learned to be still while shooting– watching moments methodically with a precision I hadn’t known before. I began returning with the same places and noticing their subtle differences. I looked for photographic potential in everything. Photographing frequently is essential for any photographer. And like any practice, it allows for the development of an inner dialogue. Robert Frank compared this to a boxer training for a fight. I find I’m sharpest when I’m shooting on a regular basis.”
Dan also provides some advice when it comes to shooting street photography– the main lesson is to walk a lot (and don’t have too much of a pre-conceived plan):
“The somewhat nomadic practice of walking the streets and photographing the places we inhabit– and responding to all that the universe has to offer– has a particularly strong hold on me. Street photography affords us opportunities to capture stolen moments, but the street also provides a context. The shared space outside our sanctuaries becomes just as much a character as those who populate it. As a practice, it’s nearly impossible to have a specific plan. I find the best method is to simply start walking. I’ve spent hours on a city block that one could traverse in a matter of seconds, and I revel in the ability to render its frenzy into the stillness of a frozen pond.
Dan also shares why he loves street photography– for how liberating it makes him feel. He also points out how the term “street photography” isn’t as important as the act of making photos in public:
“[Street photography] is the most liberating form of image-making I know. I use the term ‘street photography’ because it’s an established term within the photographic vernacular, though I suppose it could be called ‘public photography’ as well. One of the great practitioners of the field, Garry Winogrand, had disdain for the term, insisting that he was not a ‘street’ photographer, but rather a ‘still’ photographer. We can always rely on semantics to allow us to drift from the essence of a subject.”
Dan also loves how open and democratic street photography is:
“One aspect of the genre that appeals to me is that it’s non-exclusive. Because the subject matter does not require special access, it really is a democratic enterprise. It doesn’t even require a street. Any place that is inhabited by man is usually accepted within the genre.”
Dan also believes street photography and documentary photography to be the same:
“Another semantic distinction is the term ‘documentary photography,’ which is meant to imply that the images are being made for the purpose of creating a historical document. While intent may differ, I would consider these genres to be one and the same.”
He also shares the importance of being attentive when in the streets:
“In his insightful 1964 short story ”Blow Up,“ Julio Cortazar encapsulates what I believe is the essence of street photography: ‘When one is walking about with a camera, one has almost the duty to be attentive.’”
Dan loves the experience of feeling part of the streets, and the hunt to capture these fleeting moments– and shares his love of the genre:
“It’s a fascinating experience to become part of the street– to come to it by watching it rather than engaging in a fleeting, parochial encounter. So much energy and talent has been expended in the pursuit of capturing these moments, and our collective experience and sense of place has been so enriched by street photographers, that to create a comprehensive account of the genre would fill several volumes. […] Ultimately, the passion I feel for this type of photography [street photography] is so near to my heart, I would be remiss in not addressing it.”
I think here are some points we can learn from street photography (based on Dan Winters’ experiences)
- a) Always have a camera with you (solid advice from Lee Friedlander)
- b) Don’t have too much of a pre-conceived plan when out shooting
- c) Walk a lot
- d) Don’t worry about the definition of “street photography”
- e) Shoot regularly (to stay sharp)
- f) See photo opportunities in everything (it doesn’t matter where you are)
2. A photograph should stand on its own
One thing that bothers me a lot about modern photography is conceptual photography– how it focuses more on the concept of a photograph (than the photograph itself).
I believe a photograph should stand on its own– without a fancy backstory, caption, or theory. One of the first quotes from Dan Winters which really stuck out to me:
“A photograph does not require any information beyond the confines of the frame.”
Dan also shares some of his thoughts on the art world– and his personal frustrations with the system:
“I have not struggled with my works being acknowledged in the art world, so I insist this is not being aired as sour grapes. More than anything, I think it speaks to an emperor’s-new-clothes syndrome, in which photographers’ work has to be explained ad infinitum in order to safeguard its success within the so-called fine art world, and how that creates a closed cycle.”
Dan shares how photos shouldn’t need to be explained, and the backstory (or how difficult it was to create) shouldn’t matter so much:
“Photographs should not need to be explained. I don’t want to know how many steps were involved when I’m looking at a picture. I might find it interesting that the artist labored intensely to make an image, but process alone is weak footing on which to stand. The photographic image should stand on its own. Perhaps this is due to digital technology and the ubiquity of mobile devices and apps– the photographic process has been demystified to the layman, The public perception that anyone can take a picture has, for many, marginalized the medium.”
One lesson I’ve learned from Constantine Manos was that a photograph just needs two things in a caption: the location and year.
When I started photography, I would put all these esoteric and cheesy titles on my images – to try to make them better. I used titles such as, “Darkness”, “Loneliness”, “Solitude”, “Lost in thought” (thinking about it now makes me cringe).
However I think photography in itself is a visual art that communicates everything it needs to (within the frame). A single image should be able to stand on its own– without the need to prop itself up with words or a backstory.
To counter this point, I think it is fine to mix words, video, and text with photography. Some projects that aren’t about single-images (but more of a series) need text to make it stronger. Not all photographers I know care totally on just photography. Some photographers I know are also writers and poets, and like to combine both text and photography– and do it beautifully.
So ultimately just think to yourself: what do you want to achieve out of your photography? What kind of message do you want to communicate to your viewer?
Just try to be intentional with your photography– and don’t automatically assume that fancy text, captions, and elaborate back-stories will make images any better.
3. On what drives him
Out of all the great photographers and artists I have studied– they all have one common trait: obsession (which also manifests as passion).
Dan shares how being obsessive has helped his career:
“I worked hands-on with cars with as much fervor as my previous pursuits. This obsessive character trait has been helpful throughout my career. I have the ability to be hyper-focused on a single subject and absorb vast amounts of data pertaining to that subject.”
What makes Dan Winters’ work so great is that he combines so many different fields (film, illustration, photography) to make his own unique style and voice.
What ultimately drives Dan Winters isn’t this need for external recognition– but this opportunity to make images that please himself:
“Though professional work makes up the majority of my archive, I ultimately make images for myself, and any subsequent connection that is formed with the viewer from my efforts is a blessing to me. Regardless of whether my work is perceived as being bad or good, it is a product of my journey, and it’s one I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share. When I see extensive writing that attempts to explain imagery almost to the point of defense, I’m often reminded of Martin Mull’s insightful quote: ”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Another great tip from Dan Winters on taking your photography seriously:
“I make it a habit to approach every picture as though it were my last.”
I think also what drives Dan Winters in his relentless pursuit of images is knowing that there are so many great photos that yet been photographed:
“Presented with this opportunity, whether real or manufactured, would I have the ability to see the potential of the situation and trip the shutter at the precise moment that would result in a masterpiece? I now find peace in the realization that countless potential masterpieces happen each moment the world over and go unphotographed.”
Dan also shares his personal journey– and how without creativity in his life, he felt like he was dying:
“The shift I was undergoing was also a spiritual one. I felt as though my life up to this point was not being lived as consciously as I would have liked. I felt that the last few years had been experienced in a kind of fog, that I had succumbed to the delusion that the next concert, car part, or party was the answer. The spiritual aspect of my creativity had been lost, and the awareness of myself as a human being was not being acknowledged.”
Early-on, a great way he was able to find passion in his photography was photographing his loved ones:
“I quickly moved away from the inanimate in favor of human subject matter. I photographed family and friends and began a love affair with the portrait. I began telling stories in photo essays.”
Dan also shares his outside inspirations– and how he decided to dedicate his life to photography:
“I began frequenting art house theaters and studying documentary films. I went to museums and galleries in Los Angeles and began buying books on photography, painting, and art history. I became a regular at the LA Philharmonic concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. Life was filled with a new level of excitement. My passion had been reignited, and I began to see beauty everywhere. I felt as though I was awakening, and I made the conscious and calculated decision to make photography my life’s work.”
In terms of what drives Dan Winters, I would say it is the following (not an all-inclusive list, of course):
- a) Obsession (being hyper-focused on what he is doing)
- b) Knowing that many great photographs have yet been photographed (the world is full of opportunities)
- c) Beauty is everywhere
- d) Not photographing made him feel dead creatively
- e) Photographing like each photos was his last (pure gold)
- f) Making images to please yourself (rather than others)
4. On self-criticism
Even though Dan is an absolutely incredible photographer, he has had some patches of self-doubt with his work.
For example, he was hugely inspired by W. Eugene Smith (one of the most perfectionist and obsessive photographers who have ever lived).
Dan starts off by introducing how he first discovered W. Eugene Smith’s work:
“I was first exposed to the photo essay through W. Eugene Smith, who many consider to be the father of modern photojournalism and unrivaled master of the form. Smith produced a mammoth body of work in his 60 years, a significant portion of which appeared in Life over a span of three decades. In 1986 I attended an exhibition of Smith’s photographs at MOCA in Los Angeles.”
However upon seeing W. Eugene Smith’s body of work– Dan was left feeling anxious (that he could never come even close to creating as great work):
“The exhibition left me dumbfounded, and I remember being overcome with inspiration, as well as anxiety. As I discussed earlier, I was fearful that I would never produce photographs as profound and beautiful as Smith had, and at this point in my life, I am unfettered at this.”
On the other hand, W. Eugene Smith had to make huge sacrifices in his personal life (and physical/mental/spiritual health) to create the work that he did:
“Smith was, by all accounts, a gruff eccentric who was his worst enemy. He was constantly clashing with editors, and it was his seemingly inhuman devotion to his work, along with his habitual drug use, that would eventually claim his life. Smith was famous for being infamous. His photographs were sometimes hybrids of documents, in that he frequently manipulated events by posing his subjects and inventing entire scenarios in order to create the picture he wanted.”
Dan ultimately realized that being another human being – he would never create images like Gene Smith, and became okay with his position in life:
“There will never be another Gene Smith. I’ll never make images as powerful as his. I can accept this, as his life choices led him toward his own unique path. My path has led me in a different direction, one for which I’m grateful beyond measure.”
Dan also shares the importance of not comparing your work to others (even though it is human nature):
“It is important for us not to compare our work to the work of others, as challenging as that may be. It is simply human nature to look outside ourselves, rather than face that which exists internally. Comparison is ego-based and unproductive in the long run.”
Personally, I have lots of doubts about my photography. I constantly self-criticize my work, and think to myself: “It will never be good enough.” I want my work to be as good as Magnum photographers, and I want my photographs to be respected and admired by others.
However in my personal journey, trying to find external validation has only been negatively crippling. I’ve discovered that no matter how good your work is– you can never have 100% of your audience like your work. Even Bill Cosby said something like, “I don’t know what the secret to success is, but I know it isn’t pleasing everybody.”
When I look at photography books, I often feel a similar response to Dan Winters: inspiration and anxiety. Inspiration because the work is so great and beautiful– and I want to create work on a similar pedigree. Anxiety because I don’t think my work can ever get there (which can be discouraging).
However ultimately– we should always first take photos to please ourselves. At all costs, we should avoid comparing our work to the work of others.
We all have different personal backgrounds. Some of us work full-time jobs and have barely enough time to make images. Realistically, you can’t just quit your job, travel the world, and abandon your family. Some of us may not be physically equipped to put on the difficult work of constantly traveling, walking, and shooting. Some of us don’t view photography as the most important thing in our lives (I don’t) and value our personal relationships with our friends, family, and community – which will prevent us from being the world’s best photographer.
Seek to please yourself, and remember: validation is for parking (not human beings).
5. On collaboration with your subject
Dan Winters is a talented portrait photographer– and sees portraiture as a collaboration between the photographer and subject. In the book, Dan outlines his working method with his subjects:
To start off, Dan is very transparent with his subjects. He communicates how he personally works, and shares his own expectations (in terms of the image he wants to make):
“When making a portrait, I’ve found it’s important to communicate my working method to the subject before the session begins, especially when I’m working with individuals who have frequently been photographed. Varying approaches can yield vastly different results, so this working agreement is vital. I will usually describe what my expectations are and the type of photograph I would like to make on that day, as well as the level of participation I expect from them. I also provide any specific details that give the sitter a well-rounded idea of my general process.”
Semantics and word-choice is also important. Dan explains:
“I usually refer to the sitting as a ‘portrait session’ as opposed to a ‘photo shoot.’ I feel the terminology describes a more intimate experience and, in some way, changes the subject’s perception of the event.”
Dan shares how the portrait session is a two-way dialogue:
“A dialogue then begins between us. I welcome the subject to voice any concerns or ideas they might have, any particular angles they favor, and the type of direction that works best for them.”
However at the same time, Dan often has a good idea of what he wants from the shoot– and can direct his subjects too. But the importance of this is having mutual respect:
“In most cases, I prefer to direct the sitter throughout the shoot. This not only allows me to guide the shoot in the direction I would like it to go, but also relieves the subject of the responsibility of having to generate material for me. Individuals in the creative world– actors and other visual artists with whom I often work– are aware of the camera, and of the artistic process in general. For these sessions, there is a mutual respect and a peer dynamic between us, as well as a reverence for the photographic process and its capabilities.”
Sometimes the subjects have great ideas to contribute:
“Over the years there have been occasions when the subject has asked that I allow him or her to give expressions and postures to work with. Though not the norm, this working method can allow for a wonderful collaboration and has provided results that I very possibly would not have coaxed out of the sitter.”
Dan also shares the importance of not being too rigid – and going with the flow:
“Even when directing a session, I’m fluidly responding to moments that occur organically. When I give a certain type of direction– ‘Find quiet,’ for example– that request can elicit a different physical and emotional manifestation from person to person. Once again, that response may not necessarily be one I would have imagined on my own, but it is decidedly genuine.”
Ultimately the image he wants to make in a portrait session involves both him and the subject:
“I’m enormously grateful that I’ve been afforded by the opportunity to work with so many exceptionally talented artists. When making portrait photographs, my aesthetic may vary but I always try to make a photograph I feel represents both a conscious effort and a mutual agreement between my subject and myself.”
a) Takeaway point: Making vs Taking portraits
There are many different ways to shoot street photography. Personally I really like “street portraiture” – in which I ask permission from my subjects (strangers on the streets) to make their photos.
Similar to what Dan said– when you ask someone permission to take their photo, semantics (word choices) matter.
For example, I often ask people, “Do you mind if I make a portrait of you?” rather than, “Do you mind if I take your picture?”
The difference between both is subtle – but makes a huge difference.
“Making” a photo sounds much more creative and artistic than “taking” a photo (which sounds forceful and like you’re stealing their soul). Also by saying “portrait” and not “picture” – you make it sound much more serious and artistic.
So as a quick tip: stop saying “take photos” and start saying “make photos.” It will change your own perception to image-making and also to your subjects.
b) Takeaway point: Collaborating in street portraits
Also realize when you’re “making” portraits of people on the streets– it is a two-way collaboration. Give people the opportunity to goof around, pose how they would like– but also have an idea of how you would like your subjects to look.
For example, I will often ask people, “Look into the lens and don’t smile” which often gives people a more nuanced and natural look. Sometimes I will ask people to look away into the distance, look downwards, or even cover their faces with their fingers in a certain way. I sometimes ask people to show off their jewelry, sunglasses, or outfits.
When people are stiff, I often ask them to jump up and down to get some blood flowing – which helps them relax.
Other times, I will talk with people and joke around– and while they are talking or laughing, I will make more photos.
6. On being flexible
Even though Dan Winters has a strong creative vision– he tries his best to be flexible in his work.
For example, he pre-visualizes what he wants out of his work– but tries not to become too attached. Dan explains:
“I feel it’s crucial to not become too attached to any one idea, as any number of circumstances and variables can present an image I would have never pre-visualized. My rule of thumb is to have a good Plan A, but always be receptive to and actively seek out a Plan B.”
Furthermore, he doesn’t always know how the context and location will be– and stays receptive:
“I love the challenge of showing up to a location and allowing the space to inform the photograph, thus allowing Plan B to act as my plan A.”
Dan also shares his more philosophical views on flexibility and life– and the importance of living in the moment:
“My work often requires this level of flexibility, and it forces me to live in the moment, making the most of whatever experience may present itself at any given time. Knowing when to say yes and when to say no is always a balancing act, one I continue to fine-tune for myself.”
Dan tries to be open, grateful, and lives without regrets:
“Thus far I’ve had very few regrets about my choices in this arena. I feel that when things work out, they were meant to be, and I live in gratitude for each and every experience that saying yes has provided me. At the same time, I’m learning to appreciate whatever measure of peace saying no has to offer, as well.”
I think we need flexibility and looseness when it comes to street photography. I think it is good to work on projects and have some sort of a pre-visualized concept when you’re out and shooting. However, still leave some room for flexibility. Every day is different.
So for example, when I’m working on my “Suits” project– I’m actively seeking people who are wearing suits. But there are days that there are no “suits” walking around. In that regard, I will change gears– and try to stay open and receptive to any other potential street photo opportunities around me.
Furthermore as a philosophical point– I think it is important to have flexibility in life. We won’t always have the opportunity to go out and shoot– and life often gets in the way.
For example, sometimes we might have a plan to shoot for an entire weekend (without any interruptions). But let’s say your kid gets sick or something else needs to be attended to. Don’t be frustrated that you will no longer be able to shoot this weekend. Rather, go with the flow. Figure out what else you can photograph (whether it is portraits of your sick kid, or whatever).
Life is unpredictable. We need to be like bamboo and bend when necessary. For further reading on living in a world with randomness (and how to be flexible), I recommend “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb.
7. On the soul of an image
Photographers often get caught up in the technical parts of photography– but forget what the most important thing is: the soul of an image.
Dan Winters is a pretty technical photographer (and is trained in many different formats)– but ultimately all he cares about is the image:
“The soul of the image is ultimately the only relevant issue when viewing a photograph. Image-making is image-making. I’m often asked about my preference: film or digital. To me, the question is irrelevant. I have no need to choose one method of capture over the other. The photograph is all that matters to me.”
Dan shares the personal differences he has between film and digital (and ultimately how each medium has its own merits):
“I enjoy shooting film because I enjoy working in the darkroom. I enjoy processing film and experiencing the magic of pulling a wet roll of negatives off a development spool and holding it up to the light. I came out of this era, and for that I am grateful. I am not attached to any judgements one way or another. Each methods has its own merits. I frequently shoot with digital equipment, and have come to appreciate the technology’s capabilities. It’s been fascinating to witness the technology evolve over the years. I can imagine the profundity of the moment in 1972 or 1973 when Dr. Michael Tompsett and his team at Bell Labs first viewed the ethereal portrait of Tompsett’s wife Margaret captured on a CCD chip, using a camera of his own design.
A lot of photography snobs don’t like digital– because now anyone can make a technically good photograph. However digital is just another medium to make images:
“I’ve noticed a pervasive belief that digital equipment has made ‘everyone a photographer.’ While digital cameras do allow one to make pictures that are properly exposed and focused, they are merely an object solely dependent upon the operator. Image-making is image-making. The contents and structure of the frame are what inform a photograph. Using a digital camera does not facilitate this. It acts the same way as any camera: It records the moment that the photographer wishes.”
Furthermore, digital photography has expanded photographic possibilities:
“Having said this, digital technology has allowed people to make pictures that would otherwise be technically impossible. In my photographs of shuttle launches, for example, the cameras I used were able to record at a resolution and frame rate not possible with a comparable photo chemical based capture system. Likewise, digital photography has made it possible to quickly access the manner in which exposures balance when using an electronic flash. And when I shoot using digital systems, I find I’m more apt to make subtle changes in lighting than I would, say, while I’m shooting a portrait on film that requires Polaroid tests as my primary reference.”
To take a blast to the past– there was a time when “serious film photographers” looked down on amateur photographers who used the simple Kodak Brownie camera:
“There have been casual photographers ever since George Eastman introduced the Brownie in February 1900. The camera sold for $ 1, which amounts to roughly $ 30 today. The simple device was advertised as foolproof, and Kodak assured that everyone who purchased a Brownie was a photographer. Serious photographers of the era looked down their noses at the ‘Kodakers’ who ran about, snapping away.”
Dan think it is less about the medium which makes the photographer– but the singular voice:
“I often hear people say, ‘Everyone thinks they’re a photographer,’ but aren’t intent and conviction the benchmarks for mastery of any medium? Is there a distinction between ‘I sometimes play violin’ and ‘I’m a violinist’? From a technical standpoint, it’s never been easier to make a photographic image, but what is it that makes a singular voice distill time or place in a way that people connect to it emotionally?
Dan (although shoots much of his professional work on large-format) even sees the smartphone as a great way to make images:
“The mobile device, when viewed in the context of Tompsett’s efforts, is truly miraculous. ”I shoot frequently with my phone. I make photographs with it that I would not normally make, many of which I love. The phone allows me to photograph more frequently than ever before, and allows me to stay connected to that part of my process.”
In another section of the book, Dan re-affirms the importance of “pursuing the soul” through photography:
“Technique is a part of our craft, and it plays an integral role. However, it should not be at the core of our work. Ours should be a pursuit of the soul.”
As someone who shoots both film (35mm, medium-format) and digital (APS-C, smartphone) I know the benefits of both. I love shooting film because it gives me a more zen-like experience, I love the aesthetic (film grain is sublime), and the slowness (waiting to get it developed). I love shooting digital for the convenience (instant gratification), the ability to share quickly and easily (on Instagram when shooting with a phone), and how democratic it is (everyone can shoot street photography with a phone or a cheap digital camera).
I hear the debate between film and digital a lot. Ultimately I prefer film– but that is a personal choice. It is like the difference between liking vanilla or chocolate ice cream. It comes down to personal preference.
But I do agree with Dan– it is ultimately the image that matters. It doesn’t matter whether a photo was shot on film or digital– what is the soul of the image, and how does it make you feel emotionally? How does the image challenge you to view the world in a different way?
Ultimately I don’t even think it is the image that matters. It is the emotional reaction of the image that matters the most.
So with your street photography– seek to create images with soul. Fuck the medium. Whether it is shot on a medium-format or an iPhone, as long as the image makes you feel something in your heart– you are doing your job as a photographer.
8. When not to take photos
As a photographer, I have an anxiety that I won’t be able to capture all the moments of my life– and one day I might be on my deathbed regretting not documenting more of my life.
However I came upon an interesting psychological study– that apparently when you make photos of an event, you are less likely to remember it. The science is something like– if you take a photo of something, you are subconsciously telling yourself, “Don’t worry brain, you don’t need to force this to memory– because it will always be stored in a photograph later.”
So now I have been making a conscious choice when not to make photos. So for example, I try not to take photos of my food anymore. Rather, I try to enjoy the taste and the experience. Similarly, when I’m seeing fireworks with Cindy– I put away the camera and just enjoy the experience.
Dan Winters shares a personal story of when he prefers the experience (over the image):
“I didn’t make many photographs while in Australia and, to be honest, there are few among those that I’m fond of. I will often miss the mark photographically when I’m traveling for pleasure, as I tend to be more immersed in seeking adventure, and I find I don’t have the desire to document it. I’ve been a diver for many years and have never had any interest in doing underwater photography. I don’t want the distraction of photographing to take me out of the precious few moments of each dive. The undersea world is profound, and often reminds me of just how much we don’t know about our planet.”
Know when to put away the camera. You don’t need to document every small part of your life.
Be more selective.
Photograph that which really really matters a lot to you– and you want to create a physical document and record of it.
So for me, I take my street photography really seriously– as well as documenting the life of me and Cindy. But for everything else, I try to just enjoy the experience.
9. On creating your unique voice
Dan Winters is a photographer who isn’t easy to put inside a box. Although he is famous for his commercial portrait work, his interest includes illustration, multi-media, and much much more.
Dan shares the pursuit that he has of making great images – but along the way, how he has discovered patterns in his work and his voice:
Dan starts off by the lessons he’s learned from Scott Harrison, a photo editor when he was work at at the Chronicle:
“If I took anything away from Scott, it was that, regardless of the assignment, there’s always a great picture to be made. Always look for that picture. I have practiced this philosophy my entire career. I always try to shoot portfolio-worthy images. As every photographer knows, the great images are elusive. They do, however, become apparent when one is actively looking.”
Dan expands by sharing the importance of creating an internal dialogue (and being cognizant of what you’re looking for):
“This process speaks to the development of an internal dialogue. It is basically noticing that which you are noticing. This is a lifelong practice. One must become conscious of the patterns in his or her work and of the sensibility that forms as a result. These are the building blocks, which allow us to consciously develop a unique photographic voice. This practice transcends technique.”
Dan explains how Lewis Hine (famous for documenting poverty and horrible child-labor practices in the early 1900’s) found his voice, which was trying to create social reform:
“Lewis Wickes Hine was not seeking notoriety when, in 1908, he became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee and began documenting child labor practices in the US. Hine’s photographs are immensely beautiful, but the pursuit of technique, composition, or the recognition of peers was not his intention. It was his great compassion and love of humanity that initially led him to photography, and he used the medium to effect social change. He photographed children imprisoned in dark factories and coalmines, along with newsboys and bootblacks toiling on the streets of New York.”
Even as a teacher, Lewis Hine tried to evoke social change (in the work of his students):
“As an educator he urged his students to utilize photography as a means to provoke social reform. His projects had largely been bankrolled by various government agencies; over time, he found it increasingly difficult to secure funding, and he died bankrupt and broken. After his death, his photographs and negatives were offered to the Museum of Modern Art. They declined. The museum may not have recognized their importance at the time. Thankfully, the collection now resides at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The staff there needed no explanation as to their value to humanity.”
Dan Winters believes that technique is only a small part of finding our voice as photographers. Rather, one’s personal voice in photography is more of the why of image-making. The reason we make photos– the impetus that drives us.
Dan shares the importance of finding his own voice, which is taking a multi-disciplinary approach:
“While I view my work as one body, it is composed of multiple disciplines, techniques, and subject matter. Art is language, and its fluency, though never fully achieved, is dependent upon diligent practice. The manner in which one creates stems from a singular place, but can manifest itself physically in many ways.”
Dan expands on this importance of working in a diversified manner:
“I came to the realization early on that I would not be challenged creatively unless I was able to work in a diversified manner. I’ve always loved the films of Stanley Kubrick, not only because I find them to be enduring examples of cinema at its peak, but also because he explored such a wide range of genres and subjects. Looking at his filmography, Kubrick cannot be classified as anything other than an auteur. His career has long been a model to me and has inspired me to stay stimulated while creating vastly different kinds of images.”
He also sees technique as a means to an end– meaning that a photographer shouldn’t find his/her style just in terms of the camera, lens, format, approach, or technique. It is merely a starting point:
“I spoke earlier about technique, acknowledging that while technique is intrinsic to all forms of communication, it should not serve as an end. The innumerable ways in which the same tools and materials can manifest themselves in a finished piece is staggering. Art is never the sum total of the materials that compose it. Art transcends materials. Materials are merely a starting point.”
Dan further drills in the point that “style” isn’t just the materials we use in our work. We use certain tools and techniques to express ourselves in terms of communicating a certain message:
“The word ‘style’ is often applied to photography. More often than not, this categorization is erroneously applied to the materials in the frame, and not to the inner sensibility of the photographer. As I discussed earlier, materials play an important role in our mission. We are bound to them, and we remain reliant on corporations to provide us with the tools we need to practice our craft. However, these tools merely facilitate our communication; they cannot speak for us, but rather we must speak through them.”
Dan expands on this point– and saying how as artists we should focus on the why of photography (rather than the how):
“I bring this up because visual art can never adequately be described. It must be seen. It must be felt. When I view a photograph, a painting, or another form of visual expression, I’m pleased when my reaction is not related to ‘how’ but to ‘why.’ ‘How’ will follow suit, as I’m curious about materials and the ways they can be utilized in image-making but I am pleased when I first search for the origin of the language, setting about dissecting the physical once I have allowed the metaphysical piece to find its way into my psyche.”
Dan acknowledges finding one’s voice isn’t easy– and takes a long time:
“One’s visual language is not something that manifests overnight. It develops organically over a life-time. The shifts can be so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible and, at times, will come to fruition so rapidly, and with such force, that the profundity is all-consuming. That is life’s work.”
This was a big section, so let me break it down a bit:
- a) Building your style takes a long time (don’t rush it).
- b) The technique of your photography doesn’t dictate your style (rather, it is about what you are trying to communicate through your photography, and why you shoot).
- c) Try to create great work (always aim to make portfolio-worthy images).
- d) Find inspiration in many different diverse fields (and combine them to make your own vision).
- e) The medium you shoot with (35mm film, medium-format, digital, smartphone, etc) isn’t as important as the image itself. Focus on the image.
10. Stay true to your vision
Nothing great in art has ever been created by committee. Every great artistic advancement was from the strong, singular vision of an individual.
It is easy to pander to the masses– and to merely create art that reaches a broad audience (let’s say, IKEA art).
As a photographer, stay true to your own vision. Dan shares this same mentality:
“One of the great mistakes a young photographer can make is to try and second-guess what others, specifically clients and peers, expect of their work. Staying true to one’s own vision is critical. That’s not to say the client should be disregarded: When I’m out on assignment, my client will expect that their needs are met, though I always attempt to make the image I generate for them my own.”
As a photographer, a good way to stay true to your vision is also to constantly self-evaluate why you make images. For example, when Dan Winters refers to a book called “Negative/Positive.” The author Bill Jay writes in the book:
“There comes a point (probably many) when it is necessary to step back from the medium and rethink our relationship to it. Photographers should be constantly questioning their life-attitudes, and attempting to relate these values with their own images.”
However when trying to pursue your own unique version of “the truth” in your photography, you will have critics and people who try to tear you down. Although Dan Winters’ work is generally not controversial– he has also encountered many critics.
Dan first starts off by sharing how anonymous internet trolls have changed the landscape of online criticism:
“Of all the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve never witnessed such a violent reaction. Normally there is little public reaction that I’m aware of. But in today’s world of online criticism, anonymous commentators have never had such a steady perch. I found it interesting that much of the disdain stemmed from the belief that my sitters looked ”ugly.“ There were many detractors. Even the editor of a trade tabloid chimed in her penny’s worth.”
One of the most controversial projects Dan worked on was a portfolio series on Hollywood portraits. Essentially, Dan photographed many famous people in a very simple, straight-forward, “normal-human-being” type of way. This is what Dan had to say about the portfolio series:
“I confess that some of the portraits did not work, and I lament the fact that I’ll most likely never have the opportunity to make or refine those images again. However, I believe I accomplished the photographic exercise I set out to do. I’ve spoken with some of the actors I photographed for the piece, and reactions were mixed. From an artistic perspective, I’ve gotten approval by many in the industry whose criticism has consistently been honest and succinct.”
Dan Winters talked to William Eggleston about it (who is not a stranger to criticism). Eggleston gives him good advice: only care about what your friends and supporters think (disregard what anonymous critics think):
“I spoke with William Eggleston about the portfolio, and about some of the more extreme reactions that were brought to my attention. I knew his work had been met with similar reactions in the past. One reviewer, commenting on his exhibition at MoMA in 1976, declared it ‘the worst photography show ever hung.’ I asked him how he felt about such a scathing critique. ‘I didn’t let it bother me,’ he said. ‘I had friends and supporters whose opinions I valued much more than those of the anonymous critic.’
Dan continues by sharing the importance of staying true to your own vision:
“As with any pursuit in life, one must commit fully and truthfully. When I made this portfolio, I did not deviate from the course. I’m proud of the pictures and believe they possess an inherent truth that the ubiquitous glossy magazine portraits often lack.”
When Dan’s series was published in “New York” magazine– here were some online negative criticisms he received in response to “The New York Actor”:
Commenter 1: ‘Wow–this is a huge misstep for New York mag. Wrong photographer. These are awful.’
Commenter 2: ‘This is pompous self-promoting garbage. Seriously, if I have to look at one more photo spread containing headshots of famous people I’m going to puke. No passion, no excitement, just some faces of some people…who just happen to be famous. If he did the same shots of random strangers would we even care Would anyone bother to publish these ‘portraits’ if an unkonwn photographer shot them? I don’t think so. It sickens me to know that once someone gains some bit of fame or notoriety they can shoot total crap and pass it off as inspired work because they have name recognition. Just because people think you’re great doesn’t mean everything you shoot is great. Nothing but ego-driven dribble, both for the sitter and the shooter.’
Furthermore, one of Dan’s favorite images (a portrait of Laura Dern) isn’t well-received by others. Dan expands:
“Laura’s performance in front of the lens was quiet and understated. The photograph I’m most fond of from the shoot is one I also count among my favorite portraits to date.”
“This was not the photograph I’d envisioned making the day. The awkwardness of the image exists only on a single sheet of film. I don’t recall making it; when I look through the progression of the shoot, it provides no acknowledgment of my conscious intentions. But sometimes the best photographs present themselves in the moments between the moments. While editing the photographs a few days after the session, the picture all but assaulted me, as though it was insisting that it not be overlooked. Many people have criticized the image as being unflattering and weird. While I do find the moment uncomfortable, I see a truth and beauty in it that affects me every time I view it.”
Stay true to your personal vision– and don’t let others (especially anonymous online critics) water down your vision.
I do believe it is important to get honest feedback and critique from close friends, family, and other photographers you respect– but always take their feedback with a grain of salt. Ultimately it is your vision of a photographer which matters the most– don’t deviate too much from that.
You will be criticized, judged, and compared in your work.
My practical advice: remove negative people from your life. If you hang around other photographers who constantly gossip and talk negativity about others– remove them from your life (they are probably also talking negative things about you behind your back).
There is a saying: you are the average of the 5 closest people to you. If you are around positive, encouraging, and loving people– they will help uplift your vision and voice as a photographer. However if you surround yourself with negative people, they will simply try to drag you down with them in their black hole of negativity.
I also believe to develop your vision as a photographer is to work on a project you are passionate about, in which you have a certain message you are trying to convey to your viewer. Have something to say, and don’t deviate from your message.
11. On imitation
I don’t believe there is such thing as true “originality” in the world. We always borrow our ideas from others. However, I do believe originality is taking all of your life’s experiences – and combining them in a way that hasn’t been done before (and making it yours).
Dan shares his outside influences:
“It definitely plays against type, but I’ve often spoken with musicians who have surprised me with their musical tastes. This phenomenon is not unique to music. It speaks to the idea of searching outside one’s working medium in order to fold in outside influences. This serves us well as artists, as our work is a manifestation of all of our life’s experience. I have a deep love of the paintings of Francis Bacon and have looked to his work for inspiration many times over the years. As I discussed earlier, Bacon’s practice of using line work to delineate physical spaces in his paintings served as an inspiration when I designed and built the set for my portrait of Denzel Washington.”
Francis Bacon – Seated Figure (1961)
Dan also shares how he has imitated a lot of other artists in his work:
“If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I have, at one point or another– especially early on my path– flattered many. This practice is not based in an absence of inspiration or ideas; rather it’s a method to gain inspiration. Our own unique voices will benefit by examining the paths of other artists, regardless of their chosen medium.”
Below are some photographers that have had a deep influence on Dan:
“If I were to create a list of my photographic heroes, Harry Callahan, along with Alfred Stieglitz, Ray K. Metzker, and Frederick Sommer, who would top the list. Callahan, for one, was able to produce a large body of work with a powerful, singular voice. He fluidly moved from subject to subject, tailoring his sensibility to each challenge; as a result, he left a legacy that is universal. Frederick Sommer, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston all used the same equipment, yet their work differs greatly, Once again, the piano is not the sonata.”
Dan also refers to Zen when it comes to “originality” in life and art:
“Zen teaching talks about the ‘root mind,’ the original mind that existed before your mother and father conceived you. It is the way you experienced the world before thought was made. This is something within each and every one of us. We have the DNA to prove it. We are each ‘original.’ Even our experiences are our own, and no one else’s. Also, since each moment has never existed, any given moment is ‘original.’ If, as photographers, we apply our unique selves, armed with our original mind to any situation and capture an instance in a photograph, then the photo is original.”
I know some photographers and artists who refuse to look at the work of others with the fear that it will “influence” them too much– and cause them to lose their unique voice.
I think that is absolutely rubbish. I think we should try to absorb as much influence and inspiration from the world around us. Naturally, we are filters– we will filter in what we like, and discard what we don’t like.
I think if we constantly surround ourselves with great photography, great photography books, and great photographers– we will elevate ourselves to also become great.
Ultimately everything we do will be “original” – in the sense that there are no other human beings exactly like us. Therefore all of our life experiences are unique. No two street photographs are alike 100%– in terms of subject matter, light, background, gestures, and the moment.
“Originality” is overrated. Just focus on creating images that affect your viewer emotionally and challenges them to see the world in a different way. Focus on the soul of the image– rather than if it has been “done before.”
If a certain subject matter, project, or approach interests you– go for it. Who cares if others have done it before. You haven’t done it before.
12. On pushing yourself
Dan Winters works hard in his photography– and is always trying to push himself to new levels creatively. Dan shares:
“When I look back at contact sheets that are 30 years old and notice images that are the seeds of what I’m doing now, it helps me to understand this progression. Discipline plays a large role, but discipline is more than just repeatedly practicing the same physical process. I believe discipline must be so deeply ingrained that, regardless of how or what we’re producing, we’re tapping into something on a spiritual level. Creativity must be a pervasive part of our lives and cannot be relegated to a single technique, process, or piece of equipment. I enjoy pushing myself in new directions, as it provides another avenue of exploration and another way to further diversify my visual language.”
Dan has also tried photographing lots of different subject matter, and different techniques and approaches:
“Over the years I have migrated from subject to subject, utilizing different techniques. And while the physical presence of the images may differ, I have found that a singular voice has continued to evolve.”
Sometimes we feel we plateau as artists. But plateaus are simply another opportunity to grow:
“I’ve found the learning curve to appear to plateau just in time for another level to reveal itself. Our paths as artists should evolve and grow with a similar rhythm.”
Dan also sees a danger to becoming formulaic with our work. He encourages us as artists to continue to grow and mature:
“History has shown that it is not uncommon for artists to have a significant period of productivity before retreating into familiar formulas. As artists, it is our hope that our productivity continues over a lifetime, growing and maturing throughout.”
In another excerpt in “Road to Seeing,” Dan further expands on the importance of change and evolution in his work:
“As photographers, we are dependent on a physical subject in order to practice our craft– someone or something to train our camera on so we may, through our own perception, interpret our subject photographically. Over the years, the nature and content of my images has changed and evolved. As an artist, this is all I can ask for. I believe we die as artists if we allow ourselves to lapse into formula. The more I look, the better my understanding of that which I am looking at. When we shine our light on something, the universe reflects back and, in some sense, that reflection seems more prominent in our daily lives.”
As a photographer and artist, don’t become stagnant. Keep pushing your boundaries, and moving forward.
I don’t think it really matters how objectively “good” we become as photographers. I think the most important thing to stay alive as an artist is to see constant growth, evolution, and progress.
As Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus once said, “The rolling stone gathers no moss.”
13. On love
Towards the end of “Road to Seeing” – Dan Winters expresses his final message to photographers: focus on love.
I think sometimes as street photographers, we are so immersed into capturing the lives of others, that we forget to look inwards– to photograph those we love and care about the most.
For example, he brings the photos of Frederick Sommer into view:
“In these portraits, we can see that the photographic process acts as a medium through which we experience these loved ones– as human beings first, as photographs second. The ‘why’ precedes the ‘how.’ This, I believe, should be the goal of all art.”
Dan Winters has also photographed his family with as much love and attention as his other professional and personal work. If you look through “Road to Seeing” – you can also see very intimate photos he took of his son.
Dan reflects more on making intimate portraits:
“Over time I’ve found myself returning to photographs in which the photographer shares the intimate and private moments of his or her own life. The clarity of truthful moments transcends technique and, in fact, utilizes the photographic process as a conduit for human connection. Harry Callahan’s stunning photographs of his wife Eleanor; Jacques Henri Lartigue’s seemingly innocent photographs of his friends and family; Emmet Gowin’s intensely personal portraits of his wife Edith; Sally Mann’s dreamlike chronicle of her children. These images are an affirmation of the beauty in life.
Candy Cigarette, 1969 by Sally Mann
Sharing evidence of love is the most important gift a photographer can share with others:
“Evidence of a life replete with love is, in my mind, the greatest gift a photographer can give to the world. While I have been profoundly touched by these images of love, it was not until I became a father to my son Dylan that I began to understand the true source of their testimony.”
And as a last point, Dan shares the following lesson– focus on love over all other pursuits in life:
“Over the course of a lifetime, filling our lives with love must take precedence over all other pursuits. A life filled with love is all we can hope for. If we are able to form substantial, loving relationships with even a few people, we can count ourselves lucky.”
Road to Seeing by Dan Winters
I highly recommend every photographer invest in “Road to Seeing” by Dan Winters. It is easily one of my top 5 photography books at the moment– and a book I shall keep forever and cherish, and go back for inspiration in terms of images, the history of photography, and personal philosophies from Dan Winters on image-making.
Follow Dan Winters
Learn from more Masters
Below are the list of all the “masters” I have studied so far– I highly recommend reading on!
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