Ironically, I have been asked to describe this photographer with 1,000 words. Given the profound affection I feel towards him and his work, it will be a challenge to wrap it up so briefly. Humor, beauty, erudition, skill, generosity, fun. There’s six.
Dan Winters and I had exchanged a few sincerely firm handshakes in 1999, but it was at the bachelor party of a mutual friend in July of 2000 that I feel we first truly took each other’s
measure. Dan and I were to appear as fellow groomsmen in the impending nuptials, and I clearly recall a gratifying sense of relief when I was told that, instead of the traditionally misogynistic stripper fete complete with uncomfortably soused fraternity brothers, Dan would be leading we grooms-buddies on a hike to a swimming hole in his native Ventura County. “God damn”, I thought, “this Dan guy might be all right.” I didn’t know any of the guys except the groom, but having been brought up properly in a fine, rural Illinois family, I was reasonably certain I knew just how to comport myself in this situation. I arrived at the location with a canvas army backpack filled with ice and a case of Coronas. To my relief, my new compatriots quickly confirmed that I had acted appropriately in the arena of refreshments, then Dan took one look at my vintage World War 2 backpack and told me the exact Allied campaign in which it had been utilized, as well as the year the Swiss switched over from canvas to leather shoulder straps. A crush began to blossom in the springtime of my heart. He said, “C’mon. You guys are gonna love this place.”
We hiked, rather arduously, albeit enjoyably, up a rocky, switchback trail for about an hour, to arrive, astonished, at an altitudinous landscape, the likes of which I had only previously seen in an Ansel Adams calendar. The “swimming hole” was but one perfect basin in a series of boulder-strewn pools that had been created over the millennia by a small creek burbling ever deeper into the granite hill. One deep, round hole, complete with cascading waterfall, allowed for a 20-foot cliff-dive into its emerald water. Having spent most of my life in the relatively flatter environs of the Midwest, this magical setting Dan had gifted upon us fairly beggared my imagination. It seemed much more suited to a scene in which Bilbo Baggins might be found engaged in a chin-wag about finger-jewelry with a thin, lisping, somewhat amphibious chap, than one in which seven men in their 30’s lay about sipping cold cervezas. However other-worldly it might have seemed, we were not in a fantasy. We were simply in the place where Dan had taken us.
Soon thereafter, Dan visited my woodshop, pointing out all the right materials and jigs, and we giggled like cub scouts over a myriad of jack planes, spokeshaves, bandsaws, and especially my 1943 Delta drill press, the clear “hottie” amongst my arsenal of machines. Curves for days. We had a drawn-out discussion about floor sweeping techniques. No shit. Once again, he knew more about my tools and their inner workings than I could ever hope to learn, for you see, this man is lovingly obsessed with all of the implements mankind has created, using nothing but ingenuity and elbow-grease. He is fully enraptured, and luckily for us, he has a penchant to make us see what he sees as well. Dan Winters is in love with a telephone pole! It sounds silly until you see the picture he has taken of it. Then you say, “Oh…Jesus. Wow.” A suspension bridge, a firearm, a salad fork or an engine will possess him until he has taken it into the embrace of his lens and spun it about the dance floor for all of us to countenance, until we have perceived the message and realized the poignant beauty that caused him to pick up his camera in the first place.
The many-colored layers of his talent and his fascination do not stop at leather saddles, hand tools and carburetors. Dan’s portraits of human beings, from anonymous citizens to luminaries, are deceptively simple renderings of personality and nuance. They are pregnant with pathos. I’ve never seen photos of celebrities that made them seem like such, well, human beings. He suggests that the viewer really think about the person depicted, in a different way than we’ve been taught by modern fashion. His haunting plates of honey bees are shot with the efficient scrutiny of the entomologist combined with a surrealist’s elan. The works on paper are laced with specific meaning and emotional truth, in turns beautiful, humorous, and chilling. He takes on sumi-e black ink painting and writes an entire poem with three strokes of his brush. The longer I’ve known Dan Winters, the more I am astonished at the breadth of his ability to convey relevant and powerful emotions with his images.
I’ve seen Dan break into a sweat simply from the enthusiasm he feels for a conversational topic. Our world, and the people living in it, excite him. He will not be contained. When he’s shooting, Dan begins to behave like a hound who has caught wind of a coon. His pulse quickens and his eyes are never still, evaluating the light, the composition, the subject, until he locks in through the lens and then his eye never wavers. He makes photographs in the same spirit with which he’ll drive you to Lockhart, Texas in his cherry 1964 Chevy pickup, give you a tour of the three greatest barbecue joints in the world, then actually show you how to eat the barbecue. “Take a bite of brisket. Amazing, right? Now take a little bite of the jalapeno. Right?” Right, indeed. Dan Winters is a genius at tasting life who loves to share his gifts with the people, and that makes you and I a couple of lucky bastards. 1,000 words. Insufficient.
Nick Offerman is an actor, writer and carpenter currently starring in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation. Click here to see more of his carpentry work.
A retrospective exhibit of Dan Winters’ work will be on view at the Jepson Center in Savannah, Ga. from Sept. 14 to Nov.11. Winters’ book, Last Launch, was recently featured on LightBox.