Model Maker: Photographer Dan Winters
Dan Winters surveys a shifting landscape—his own backyard. On a mid-August morning, the 59-year-old photographer, author, and filmmaker is in the kitchen of his Austin, Texas, home, detailing the impending relocation of his studio and workshop (headquartered in a converted post office, general store, and Texaco station 25 miles south in unincorporated Driftwood) to just steps from his front porch. Anyone who has worked with Winters—presidents, astronauts, publishers of the country’s most influential publications—could grasp the challenge, given Winters’ lifelong accumulation of equipment, archives, and personal collections, which range from apiaries (beehives) to pieces of Apollo spacecraft.
The shuffling of workspaces feels natural, almost expected, given the rotational history of his surroundings. Winters’ home, which he; his wife, Kathryn; and son, Dylan, moved to from Los Angeles in 2000, was built in downtown Austin in 1938 and later transported to this quiet enclave on the north side of town circa 1975. Their detached garage will soon supplant the Driftwood studio. It was originally Winters’ model-building workshop, but that migrated a decade ago to a pitched-roof room on the second floor. The model shop is a place of refuge cocooned in paint sets, kit parts, and books on the artistry of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Dan Winters’ first serious profession was that of a motion picture special effects model builder. He still builds miniatures today, finding the act of creating for the sake of creating rewarding. / Photo by Dan Winters
Winters vividly recalls the first model he ever built (a British SE5a biplane), around age 6, with his father, Larry Winters—a welder from Ohio who moved the family to Ventura, California, in 1959. “I would ask him to draw me something, an airplane or a rocket, and it would be on the breakfast table when I’d get up in the morning for school,” Winters said from his own breakfast table. “He would also make little spaceships out of wine corks and put screws in them or paper clips for skids. He’d leave them as little surprises.”
Model-building has been a constant in Winters’ life. “When you start a model,” he explained, “the only thing that exists is your intent and whatever tools and materials you need. You work through the thing, create it, and then it exists. You will it into being. There’s an unbelievable satisfaction in that. In the ability to see what the model is going to be before it gets to a point of unification.”
Growing up, Winters remembers the yard on the working farm where he was raised as always strewn with spare parts, and he was often tasked with repurposing them. “The engine in our Volkswagen threw a rod, and we had to rebuild the whole thing,” he recalled. He assisted his father on nights and weekends, staving off resentment for missing idle time with his friends. “I remember the weekend we put the motor back in. We had it on a jack, and my dad slid it in, and I had to balance it until it speared the spline of the transaxle. He got in and pushed the clutch and it started up—I mean, right up. We took it for a drive, even though the bumper and deck lid were off. I remember driving down the street and reflecting on what it took to do that. As a kid, it was way out of my wheelhouse. But seeing that it was possible to do that was massive.”
In 1978, Winters’ father drove his 16-year-old son 50 miles to Van Nuys to visit Apogee, a special-effects company operated by John Dykstra, the Oscar-winning effects supervisor on Star Wars. Winters had cold-called Steve Sperling, who ran the office, and sent several photographs of his model spaceships by mail. A tour with Grant McCune, chief model maker on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, was arranged. As Winters wrote in his 2014 book, Road to Seeing, “Once inside, it was surreal to see the same model shop firsthand that I’d studied in dozens of photographs published in movie magazines. I was captivated by the artistry I witnessed at every turn…. I cannot describe the profound inspiration and affirmation this visit gave me.”
Road to Seeing by Dan Winters explores his journey to becoming a photographer and significant moments in his career.
In the months that followed, Winters’ mailbox remained packed with special-order plastics, and his fleet of scratch-built spaceships grew. The photos of his progress eventually led two Apogee veterans to recommend him for employment at Design Setters, an effects house in Burbank. Through a work-experience program during his senior year, Winters attended two classes in the morning, then drove to the San Fernando Valley to build models, including one for the Neil Young film Human Highway. It was a creative utopia disguised as a pass/fail.
This portrait of actor Denzel Washington, seated in a set singlehandedly constructed by Dan Winters and published in the New York Times Magazine in 1992, was an inflection point in Winters’ career, opening the door to decades of world-class editorial and portrait work. / Photo by Dan Winters
After attending college at Moorpark, studying abroad in Munich, and assisting for photographer Chris Callis in New York City, Winters began incorporating his skills as a model builder and production designer into his portraiture, creating fictitious worlds unique to each image. An assignment to photograph Denzel Washington for the New York Times Magazine in 1992 was instrumental. Winters stayed up through the night and singlehandedly built a forced-perspective set that evoked the rural outposts documented by photographer Walker Evans during the Depression. The set also emphasized the body position of a seated Washington, whose hands were resting against his dark suit, causing his fingertips to pop. The secret, in a sense, was the human touch.
Winters’ subjects have included Ryan Gosling (above), the Dalai Lama, Tupac Shakur, Helen Mirren, and Fred Rogers, who, according to Winters, “treated the photo shoot sacredly.” He’s also photographed two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; his portrait of Obama is featured prominently as the back jacket of the president’s memoir, A Promised Land. / Photo by Dan Winters
This approach carries through Winters’ latest and most immersive project, the film Tone, which he wrote, directed, and photographed. It’s a love story set in a dystopian future where a laborer—the eponymous Tone, whose vocal cords have been stripped by a surveillance state—returns to Earth from Mars and helps heal another broken soul. At nearly 40 minutes, the project far exceeds the scope of Winters’ previous short-subject documentaries and music videos, and visualizing both the earthbound and cosmic elements of the story demanded extensive model and miniature work.
The majority of those Mars miniatures, both piecemeal and whole, still reside in Winters’ Driftwood studio. (Before driving from his home for a studio tour, he cautioned not to crush a box of spare plastics on the car seat, which a hobby shop owner had recently reserved for him. It was an F/A-18C Hornet kit affixed with a handwritten Post-it note that read: WINTERS DAN PARTS GIFT.) Built in 1903 as a post office and general store, the sandstone building in Driftwood expanded in 1942 to accommodate a feed store. A subsequent owner extended that addition, turning a water cistern out back into an interior structure, surrounded by closets, one of which Winters converted to a darkroom. The facade is adorned with a defunct fire-engine-red Texaco gravity pump, occasionally confusing gas-strapped passers-by on the highway.
A Photographer’s Thoughts on a Photograph
Portrait of Charles Batchelor, "First Photograph Made with Incandescent Light," 1880 / THF253728
“As a practitioner of the craft of photography, I frequently employ the use of artificial light when making my photographs, the distinction being that the light emanates from a manmade source and not from the sun.
Inside, Winters stands beside a bay of humming computer monitors with a Topo Chico. The cold bottle of sparkling water is perfect for slaking thirst and, as tradition holds, providing the next building block in a backyard pile of empties he’s dubbed Mount Topo. Through hundreds of annual deposits, the glass mountain now hosts a rotating colony of pill bugs, snakes, silverfish, and eleodes (beetles). It’s another world within worlds on the studio grounds, where nature and Winters’ collection of artifacts from nearly two centuries of photographic history meet the realities of an increasingly digitized future.
The encroachment of the elements proved calamitous in 2020, when winds clocking 75 mph tore at the metal roof and rainfall destroyed thousands of negatives in storage lockers below. While taking solace that well over a million negatives were safe, including those amassed from anonymous collections he’d found at junk stores and paper-goods shows, the incident nonetheless prompted the decampment for his Austin backyard, where proximity alleviates the increasing sense of vulnerability.
With another Topo tossed to the beetles out back, Winters begins detailing the international origins of the books on the shelves lining the original exterior wall of the post office. It called to mind the 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library,” in which German theorist Walter Benjamin wrote, “I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient.… How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”
Winters settles on Photography Album 1, edited by Pierre de Fenoyl, purchased at 23 while biking across Australia. “There’s amazing work in it, work that made me feel like photography was boundless,” Winters said. “I was riding from Sydney to Adelaide, and I had two panniers on my bike for storage. I rode that book for 1,300 miles, in a brown paper bag. I still have the bike; it’s at the house.” A casual flip through the book revealed a preserved leaf tucked inside. “We want to have a memory,” Winters added. “Certain objects will anchor us to a place and time.”
Dan Winters considers his desk, an old drafting table, the anchor of his studio. Littered with objects collected over time, he said of this space, “Sitting at the desk provides a connection to my history.” / Photo by Dan Winters
The undisputed anchor of the studio is Winters’ work desk, an old drafting table festooned with his full range of interests. “Sitting at the desk provides a connection to my history,” he said. “I’m inspired by the intrinsic value of these objects. Some have historical significance, certainly, and some are significant to me and my own path in life. Oftentimes they’re just beautiful objects I like to contemplate. One of the drawbacks of the collection is I feel it would be pretty quickly marginalized by whoever was settling my estate. At first glance, it probably looks like junk.”
According to theorist Benjamin, “the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.” Winters senses the necessity of cataloging these objects in the moment and imparting their meaning. There’s the National Supply badge that belonged to his grandfather, whose company made transmissions for Sherman tanks. Or a rivet from the Golden Gate Bridge, flecks of international orange paint still visible. (Ironworkers presented the rivet ceremoniously to Winters after a photo shoot.)
Lost in Space
Photo by Dan Winters
Photo by Dan Winters
Among Dan Winters’ desktop mementos are two pieces of equipment from the Apollo program: a pressure transducer (left above) and an RCS check valve assembly, still bagged (right above. Both were procured from a Los Angeles scrap dealer who capitalized on the closure of a Van Nuys plant operated by Rocketdyne, manufacturer of the Saturn V engines. The keepsakes have remained within reach ever since.
There’s also a swab attached to a wine cork, which is in fact a vital tool, one that facilitated a series of portraits for National Geographic that quickly became among Winters’ most widely seen images. Published in May 2021 and intended to draw attention to World Bee Day, the subject was actress Angelina Jolie covered in bees. Before the shoot, Winters and friend Konrad Bouffard contacted Ronald Fischer, an entomologist now in his 90s, who was “bearded” in bees for an iconic Richard Avedon portrait in Davis, California, in 1981. They also reached Avedon’s on-set beekeeper, who still had the cork swab he’d used to dot Fischer’s skin with queen-bee pheromone, thus attracting a swarm. As a lifelong beekeeper, Winters was honored to use the very same swab for his shoot and to be told he could keep the cork among his treasures.
It was hard not to draw a line to the cork-and-paper-clip spaceships Winters’ father left for him in the mornings, the ones that inspired him both to build and to collect. Asked if a cork ship was docked on his desk, Winter was convinced, though he couldn’t pinpoint one. “I know I have one in these boxes,” he said, sifting through cardboard stacks. He reminded himself to check later. For now, the day was still young, and the sun was out. In the shadow of Mount Topo, this message in a bottle would remain open, awaiting its cork.
James Hughes is a writer and editor based in Chicago. This post was adapted from an article in the January–May 2022 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.
Texas, The Henry Ford Magazine, space, photography, photographs, movies, making, California, by James Hughes, books, 21st century, 20th century