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Remembering Denise Winters (1953 – 2019)

Elaine Stritch and I were among the many stars and strivers whom this preeminent and gracious NYC photographer vividly rendered by her profound portraits.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

I am a “people” photographer, more than a headshot photographer. Headshots were very retouched and heavily made up back then when I began, every headshot looked the same, today, people’s personalities are shining through in their headshots. Hopefully I had something to do with changing that.

2015 Denise Winters selfie.

So, stated photographer Denise Winters on her website about her methodology. The success of her achievements is evidenced by looking at her work which vividly captures her subjects’ essences via her visual artistry.

“I really believe good things will happen from these” said Denise after we agreed on two images of me from the many she took during a three-hour session. This was in March 2016 at her Bohemian studio and residence in a grand old apartment building in the 50’s on First Avenue in Manhattan.

She also shot outside, nearby under a traffic archway with its stones and urban atmosphere as the background. Denise’s girlishness, free-spiritedness and delightful bubbly voice were all reminiscent of Teri Garr. It was a memorable pleasure to have spent that time with her and I was very pleased with the results.

We then became Facebook friends, mutual followers on Instagram and occasionally communicated. Her wonderful postings were often taken up with fabulous views of New York City, her family, shots from new clients’ sessions and her beloved cats, Lexington and Madison. In November of this year, she cryptically posted about being in the hospital, then about getting released and that all was well. On December 21, a relative of her’s posted the sad news that between December 19 and December 20, Denise suffered two strokes and was in an ICU. She died on December 23, 2019, at the age of 66.

Madison and Lexington.

Born in Far Rockaway, Queens, on August 22, 1953, Denise started her business in January 1986. She photographed many strivers and stars and became one of the city’s preeminent headshot photographers. Most monumental, was her long association with Elaine Stritch. Denise took the iconic image used to represent At Liberty, and those used to promote Stritch’s Café Carlyle appearances.

Elaine Strich: “At Liberty”

Her favorite, was this one from the 1990’s, and she described how it came about on Facebook:

Elaine Strich

we were shooting with the cigarette in her hand… and she said, “wait a minute darling, let me fix my coat”, and she put the cigarette in her mouth … it was magnificent… and I had to capture her… but was nervous about showing it to her.. I said “Elaine, I love this photo, but I will destroy it if you want me to… and she said I LOVE IT!! it feels like yesterday..

Improbably, Denise was not an interviewee in the Stritch film documentary, nor was she mentioned, or her work included in the recent Stritch biography.

During a January 2016 theater festival, I appeared in a David Mamet-style one-act play about four businessmen who play golf, poker and mind games. The rehearsals were difficult, but the actual performances were exhilarating and fired me up to want to do more. It had been some years since my last headshots, and performers often have the optimistic belief that awesome new headshots could be the springboard to show business success.

“Sure, have pictures made. Then the people who don’t want to see you will know who it is they don’t want to see” wrote Charles Grodin of his agent’s advice in his 1989 memoir, It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here.

Having seen Denise’s Backstage ads for years prominently featuring a Stritch photo of hers and those of other actors, I decided I would go to her. We had a nice chat on the phone and set a date. That day, I showed up at her place with a suitcase of different clothes and we got started. She was so warm and inquisitive. We shared our communal admiration of Elaine Stritch with personal anecdotes, and it was thrilling to be in the same studio where she had been immortalized. The hours passed quickly as I changed shirts and jackets while we chatted and as she clicked away. We later exhanged emails about which ones were ideal and I visited her once more to pick up the copies she had printed.

My headhsot by Denise Winters.

So far, good things arising from those hallowed pictures have been scant, but there was the joyous experience of encountering Denise Winters. Lamentably, present and future aspiring performers will no longer be able to have that enriching opportunity.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (728 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

12 Comments on Remembering Denise Winters (1953 – 2019)

  1. DENISE WAS AWESOME!!!! She was talented, warm, loving & so much fun to be around. Her spirit & friendship will be greatly missed by all…..

  2. Avatar Joseph Lucas // December 24, 2019 at 1:22 am // Reply

    A joyous woman. God bless her soul and her family for this loads. No one else like her. Never. ❤️?❤️?

  3. Avatar Melissa Wasserman // December 24, 2019 at 6:39 am // Reply

    Denise and I became friends when we did a “swap” over 30 years ago. I designed her logo (which was based on her lovely signature), and she took pictures of me. The photos were gorgeous and she was still using my design. She was a warm, funny, kind, talented, interesting, interested and beautiful soul. I can still hear her screaming at her crazy puppy, Dorothy, who chewed up her very expensive shoes. I’m so sad and shocked by the news of her death. My thoughts are with her family, whom she clearly loved a lot.

  4. Avatar shelley matusoff // December 25, 2019 at 1:45 pm // Reply

    I KNEW DENISE MANY YEARS. SHE WAS A GEM ALWAYS WITH A SMILE ON HER FACE. SHE HAD A HEART OF GOLD AND I LOVE HER

  5. Thank you, Darryl, for this beautiful tribute to the one in a million Denise Winters. Denise and I were pals when we both worked at Club Med in the 80s.. Back then she was only just contemplating a career in photography, and I was always taken by the beauty of her work, and her keen eye. I moved to Oregon in ’90, and years later we reconnected through Facebook, and seemed to have picked up where we left off. I was thrilled to see that she followed her passion and had a thriving career. She was a breath of fresh air, nothing but positive and optimistic, and I already miss her horribly. Thanks again for writing this beautiful memento.

  6. Working to get Denise Winters cats to new home. She died suddenly on December 23rd 2019. I am going to transport them to Florida to their new home. Need transport fee for JetBlue for kittens, Money for preflight vet check. Transport to my house in Massapequa Park and food and supplies for their initial care.
    I have started a Facebook fundraiser on my Facebook page. Please help. JANE MAGNER

  7. Avatar Kristen Lee Kelly // December 28, 2019 at 2:50 pm // Reply

    Thanks for writing this Darryl. She was an amazing soul. I HATED getting my shots done and she was the only one I clicked with. I adored her. We bonded over art, culture, spirituality, firemen (ha!) and CATS! Rest sweet Denise.

    • Darryl Reilly Darryl Reilly // February 7, 2020 at 12:22 am // Reply

      Thanks so much for this touching response and thanks to all who have commentated. My humble intention was to celebrate and commemorate an unsung, beautiful and important figure of the New York City theater.

  8. I’m still shocked. I only just learned of Denise’s passing.
    My deepest sympathies for her family and friends.
    Thank you Daryl Reilly for this lovely post. It so accurately describes the wonderful Denise. .
    We met when my employers needed a photographer for their website and I choose to call Denise because of her magnificent photographs, but we became fast friends over our mutual love of growing up in Rockaway Beach.
    Denise made you her friend rather than just a client. She was an exceptional woman and will be missed by so many people.
    Her bubbly voice,her awesome smile and her sincere love of people will be missed dearly. May she rest in peace.

  9. Avatar Grace Pettijohn // March 11, 2020 at 10:43 pm // Reply

    Oh i can’t believe this. I had wondered where and what happened to her. She found the best of us in her art and I treasure all the headshots she ever did of me as an actor. She was personal, up close and true to everyone she photographed. I had her in mind for all my students when they come of age. Her spirit is above and I pray she looks down on all our likeneses and realize how much she told the truth. May her Memory be Eternal!

  10. She was such a kind, warm, lovely woman. Genuine as well.

    I’m so sad to hear of this. For some reason decided to look her up, and sadly read thins.

    I am so blessed to have had my headshots done by her. She put me at ease. People are so stuck up and fake in the business, she was just an angel.

  11. what a shock…a great loss of generosity and joie de vivre. Denise took headshots of me many years ago, and she always had the gift of the personal touch, which must have come from her love of life and of people …she was an angel in many ways, and in my tribute to her life, how much should be included? She is not here to give her permission, but it would not be complete if I did not say there was a time in the eighties when we were close. It was a great gift to know her and the world is a colder place this morning without her. Goodbye Nisie, rest in peace …you were special, your warmth made a gtreat difference in my life and I will never forget that. And you. Love, Lee.

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