The Making of Dan Winters' 'Periodical Photographs'

The Making of Dan Winters' 'Periodical Photographs' In late 2007, I received a life-changing phone call from one of my best friends, a photographer named Dan Winters. He and I had become inseparable collaborators nearly 10 years ago, after a summer afternoon spent photographing (and gorging on) a particularly fine crop of Texas Hill Country peaches. Since then, we've worked together nearly every month in some form or fashion, both during my tenure at Texas Monthly, and now at WIRED.

But that day in 2007, Dan wasn't calling about one of our current magazine projects. He had rung with news that Aperture was going to publish his first monograph, a day we had both been dreaming about for years. I had never designed a book and Dan had never tackled the monumental task of taking stock of his 25 years of photography and illustration.


The closest thing Dan had to a book was this catalog designed by David Armario for a black-and-white show Dan had exhibited in the mid-1990s.


I loved this piece for the way David had showcased Dan's work so effortlessly: no captions, beautiful use of white space matched with exquisite diptych pairings and a very manageable size. Dan and I were so fond of this catalog we planned for his first monograph to focus on this body of work--the black-and-white Hasselblad photographs. We even went so far as to start working on pairings and prints, and I started to think about cover designs.

Dan's a great designer in his own right, not to mention he's as big a typography nut as I am. We both collect antique ephemera, everything from old razor blade boxes to Varga girl prints. His studio is filled with these little wonders; nearly every space--wall and desktop--is covered in found objects and personal mementos.

This is a photograph he made of his desk. It's sort of a constantly evolving still life that he perpetually curates.


And as in his work, red and green play a key role. There are green walls and green signs and little red accents everywhere. He has a stunning collection of WWII gear, including a whole wall fitted with shelves that hold dozens of helmets--all shades of olive. I knew I wanted to play up the feeling of his studio in the design of his book, and materials and color were really going to matter. i wanted it to feel like the object itself was a piece from his collection, something that would feel right at home on his desk.

One day, I found a turn-of-the-century box of glass negatives at my favorite Austin store, Uncommon Objects, and I gave it to Dan for a birthday present. The packaging was exquisite, and before long, I was riffing on it for cover designs for this body of work, something Dan was calling Field Recordings. This was one of my early sketches:


For the inside cover, I had adapted a pattern I had found in an old accounting ledger.



And for the ISBN/Library of Congress colophon information, I was influeced by Chip Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys, a book that is among my favorite pieces of design, period. I loved how he even treated the banal information in unconventional ways and I tried to incorporate some of those thoughts in these early explorations.


Well, needless to say, these explorations were incredibly instructive, but we ended up striking out, not finding a publisher who was interested. We both got busy and I moved to San Francisco and the project fell by the wayside.

Fast forward three years to my phone call in 2007. Dan had gotten an inquiry out of the blue from the fine folks at Aperture. They wondered what he was working on and were hoping he might have enough material for a book. To make a long story short, they settled on a monograph focusing on his magazine work--nearly 20 years worth of color 4x5 photography. We were a go!

In early 2008, after several meetings in New York with his editor at Aperture, Joanna Lehan, I began to talk seriously with Dan about the design. In June, I traveled to Austin ready to roll up my sleeves and collaborate.

Here's one of the envelopes Dan had going--ever the designer himself.


Dan understands graphic design like very few other photographers I know; Platon has a similar skill set (They're good friends, is it any wonder?), and I've always been impressed by artists like these guys. They understand their own craft, but have an uncanny knack for exploring the synergy and tension afforded by smart design.

These are some of Dan's early diptych explorations.


And this is a mock-up Dan made for his editor at Aperture during the negotiation phase. At this point, they were contemplating the title Virtue and VIce.


This is a pairing that made it through all the way to the final book, a juxtaposition of still life shot of an old projector and a portrait of Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy.


Meg and Jack White. We ended up cutting this spread, but I miss it.


Once I got to Austin, we spent a full day in Dan's studio just pulling shots that we felt like had to be in the book. Then we spent two more days working on pacing, editing, and pairings. We handled the work much like I do at the magazine, making little chips that we could easily move around and stare at.



We did a lot of staring at the wall. Dan's wife Kathryn would come by and bring us food and find us sitting in the exact same place she left us hours before and would ask, "are you guys actually working!?" But it was such fun, the little moves back and forth, the rearranging, the "oh, what if..." moments and the frantic searches for new pictures we had forgotten about.


At the end of three days we had about 100 images selected and a rough pacing we wanted to show Joanna. I had an idea about a cover, something that was a little unconventional. Initially, we had wanted to go back to that sketch I had done years ago; Dan and I didn't want a photograph on the cover, but Aperture wasn't seeing the wisdom in that (I wonder why!). They wanted a celebrity portrait cover.

At this point, we were in love with the title Architects and Heroes and wanted to put this photograph of the Warner Grand Movie Palace on the cover. It's tough to see in this shot, but Dan's name was in debossed gold foil and the spine was red satin. The dust jacket was clear acetate and the title was printed on the plastic, sort of like it was being projected on the silver screen. It wasn't a typical Winters portrait, but we loved the mystery it held, since most of his celebrity portraits would be included, it felt a little cinematic.
An early title page exploration.


One of the great things about the project was that Dan had asked his friend Lynn Hirschberg to write the foreword, and she did a marvelous job. As a designer, I always take such pleasure in laying out beautifully written prose. But at this point--late summer '08--Lynn hadn't turned in her first draft, so I was sort of poking around in the dark.


We showed the edit, the cover idea, and rough layout to Joanna and her colleagues in New York. They had great constructive criticism, though we didn't agree with all of their suggestions. But like any good editor, Joanna got us to see things we had missed and greatly improved the overall flow of the book.

However, one thing they weren't going to budge on was the cover. First of all, we didn't have a P+L that would support the gold stamping and acetate dust jacket. But more importantly, this being Dan's first work with Aperture, they felt strongly that we needed to feature one of his celebrity portraits. We also moved on from the A+H title and settled on Periodical Photographs.

I was realy fond of this image of Willie Nelson, one of my heroes, though Dan wasn't as in love with it as I was. We gave it a whirl.


Joanna wanted to try Neil Young, but Dan and I didn't like the mood this put out, though we loved the portrait and did end up using it inside.


I also loved this shot of Natalie Portman for its delicacy and power. It remains one of my favorite of Mr. Winters' portraits.


And so all through the fall, we worked and worked, finalizing the edit and layout. I had the help of my friend and colleague, Walter Baumann, here at WIRED, and we tightened down the typographic details while Dan worked on prints and color with his studio manager/lead assistant, Jeff Wilson. They turned images in to the Aperture production department throughout the fall, and by Thanksgiving, I had done color moves with the very talented Matthew Pimm. It was looking fantastic. And before you knew it, the project was over. We shipped files off right before Christmas and began the waiting game.

This is how it turned out. (Click on any of the images for a larger view.)
Remember the ledger idea? I had the incomparable Marian Bantjes reimagine the pattern and we printed it in metallic gold on mint green paper. It's my favorite detail of the book.  Here's a detail:


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And here is the proud papa himself, signing copies in Texas.


So now for my shamelss shill: go out and get yourself a coupla four copies of Dan Winters: Periodical Photographs and support my pal!

I believe Dan to be one of the top three editorial photographers working today. The man is a genius in the truest sense of the word. His talents are endless, but they reside in one of the most generous and thoughtful human beings I've ever had the pleasure of calling a friend. I can't believe I've had the chance to work with him over these past years. I'm humbled and honored to have been able to design his first book, but it won't be the last. We're already cooking up ideas on that long overdue black-and-white volume. It's next.

In the meantime, come down and join us at the Fahey/Klein gallery in Los Angeles on July 30 for the opening exhibition of Periodical Photographs . I'll post time and location details in a separate entry. See you there!

Images courtesy Dan Winters, from the book Dan Winters: Periodical Photographs , published by Aperture, May 2009.
  • Irene La Grasta

    What an amazing collection of fantastic photography. Great design, killer typography and I love that it all starts with a shot of his desk. Nice!

  • Tim Mantoani

    WOW!!!! Thanks for the post, amazing project on all fronts.

  • beerphoto

    "I believe Dan to be one of the top three editorial photographers working today." I'd put him in my top two - I have a strong attraction to Robert Maxwell. I'm curious as who your other two are??? (I'm guessing Platon and ?)

  • dramafarmer

    Until five minutes ago, I had no idea about who Dan Winters was, or is. ... I feel like I've just stumbled upon a secret society of people who like the things I like. Thanks for that


  • Andrei Michailov

    Been waiting for this one for so long. Beautiful is not enough! Thank you Scott for sharing with us such stories. By the way, I will love to see a photo of your desk too (home and office) :-) Of course, shot by Dan. And please get back to us with more making off from Wired!!!!!! Maybe on the new cover story with Brad shot by Dan. And why not working with Platon for a future book of his photography? :-)

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