The Photographer Next Door

January 1, 2009

By Laura Brauer

Since 2002 the WPPI Hy Sheanin Memorial Scholarship has consistently drawn entries from some of the most talented, budding photographers in the country. Upon being awarded the scholarship, many past recipients—JB Sallee, Wes Kroninger, Catherine Hall and Carina Romano—swiftly launched successful photographic careers, becoming some of the industry’s most influential artists.

The response to the 2008 Hy Sheanin was no different than in past years. Amidst the masses of noteworthy applications, a Texas-based fashion shooter emerged at the top of the heap. I remember seeing Dixie Dixon’s portfolio during the final stages of judging: Her photography was strong and had an ambitious haute couture look. The application itself was presented cleanly and professionally, and her resume was impeccable. “I’ve always been a big fan of presentation,” says Dixie. “I worked on that in business school.” As a whole, Dixie’s application conveyed her unwavering drive and precocious initiative—qualities desired in any scholarship applicant—and ultimately eclipsed all other contenders, convincing the judges she was ready to take her photography to the next level.

So when I met the freshly named Hy Sheanin winner at WPPI in 2008, I wasn’t surprised that the young woman behind the application was just as polished and likeable as the one I had seen on paper. Nor was I surprised to see her readily consorting with many of the industry’s prominent imagemakers. Dixie’s unassuming air and earnestness is comforting, and it’s refreshing to speak with a photographer like her. Being new to the game, Dixie is someone who hasn’t yet seen it all; she is someone for whom photography is still a world of possibility and intrigue. She reaches for every crumb of information she can get, accepting it graciously and consuming it wholeheartedly, never sated with mere good efforts or half-truths.

Although she thrives off an untempered idealism, Dixie doesn’t expect anything in photography to be easy. When WPPI President Skip Cohen called Dixie to inform her of her award, she thought her friends were playing a practical joke. “You know when Skip called me, to be quite honest I thought it was a prank phone call,” says Dixie. “I was shocked. I was basically jumping up and down in my living room. I couldn’t believe it.” But don’t let Dixie’s modesty fool you. Although she describes herself simply as “a Texas girl,” there is much more to this young artist than she initially lets on.

Discovering Light in the Darkroom
A passion for learning about photography—both its art and its business—was evident in Dixie at a very young age. “I took my first darkroom class as a sophomore in high school and that got me hooked,” she says. Dixie remembers how she would completely lose track of time in the darkroom, once spending seven hours inside without a break. When one of her photographs made the cover of the school yearbook, she says, “That’s when I knew I had to do this for a living. That was a huge moment for me.”

Although Dixie cultivated her passion for photography at Texas Christian University, she opted to take a more pragmatic route toward her dreams. “I majored in entrepreneurial management because I knew that I wanted to own my own business, and I knew I needed to know the business side of things in order to make a living doing what I love,” she says.
Although she admits that she prefers shooting fashion, Dixie is happy spending equal time on both aspects of her business and emphasizes that meeting and interacting with any of her clients is gratifying enough. “I feel like I get to know so many amazing people through what I do. I mean I’m friends with my clients. I feel like I really know my clients.

[They’re] kind of like your next-door neighbor—you get to know them, and you get to hang out with them.” It’s Dixie’s attitude that puts her subjects at ease, allowing them—model or average Jane—to comfortably indulge in her imaginative visual landscapes. “It is my personality to idealize everything in life, which is why I think I am able to find the inner beauty in every person or situation,” says Dixie.

Supplementing her devotion to photography with a management degree, Dixie also gained invaluable experience during a study-abroad internship. “I became deeply engaged with photography, specifically fashion photography, the summer after sophomore year of college,” she says. “I sought out the only college-level fashion photography study-abroad program, applied, got in and went on my merry way to the United Kingdom, working under the close watch of world-renowned fashion photographer Jeff Licata and well respected instructor Doc Mason. It was then that I became enthralled at the idea of creating fantasy within the lens.”

Studying under Licata and Mason, Dixie ran headlong into the fantastic landscape of fashion photography and began developing a style that she now describes as “edgy, yet sophisticated, and curiously innocent.”

With a style informed by artists such as Patrick Demarchelier, Richard Avedon, Matthew Jordan Smith, Andy Warhol, Jack Vettriano and Todd White, Dixie immerses herself in what she calls a dimension of romantic possibility in her
fashion photography.

“Fashion photography depicts an imaginary state in which romance, love and dreams come to life,” she says. “As a fashion photographer, you have the power to create anything your mind can imagine. It’s not meant to be real and that is exactly why it suits my fancy. I am a hopeless dreamer with a wild imagination.”

The Bold New Look of Ambition
It is the “hopeless dreamer” in Dixie that applies a childlike innocence to the traditionally sleek and provocative look of fashion photography. She transmutes her high-fashion tendencies into stylized, yet approachable, portrait offerings for the ordinary client; the “Dixie Couture” line. “I’ll have a makeup artist and hair stylist come in, and I’ll have the client bring pretty much their whole wardrobe,” she says. “And I’ll put together the outfits, choose the locations and really work with them on producing stylistic, cool lifestyle shots.”

By applying fashion retouching techniques to portraits, Dixie achieves a haute couture semblance for her clients without making them amble down the runway in 6-inch heels. “Fashion retouching is a lot different than portrait retouching, so I use it on my portraits and it gives them a little more of an edge,” she says.
Photoshop Actions from Kevin Kubota, the Sallees and Kevin Jairaj have also aided Dixie in her portrait business, and, surprisingly, they have come in handy for her fashion shoots as well. “It’s worked out well doing both portrait and fashion because I can apply a little bit of each one to the other,” says Dixie. Not only that, but this clever approach maximizes her business potential without compromising her artistic integrity.

Network or Perish
Since she started her business, Dixie has benefited greatly from social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. She piques the interest of clients by continually uploading new photos to those sites, keenly utilizing them to promote her brand, coordinate shoots and stay in touch with other professionals. “They’re basically my only advertising,” she admits., in particular, has become an indispensable tool for Dixie’s burgeoning career. It’s a site where fledgling models, photographers, makeup artists and others can network to help each other build portfolios. Dixie was introduced to the Campbell agency, a large modeling agency in Dallas, through the site and now shoots all of its new talent.
The Internet also helps Dixie stay in contact with the people she met at her first WPPI Convention and Trade Show last year. Since the convention Dixie has been busy implementing much of what she learned there in her business. “It was such a cool experience. I feel like I learned so much about the business aspect of photography at the business seminar,” she says. “It was almost overwhelming, but I came back with a notebook full of info, and it’s made all the difference.” Dixie found the many speaker programs equally helpful. “It seemed like a lot of the speakers were really inspiring and they wanted to personally help you,” she says. “I took Matthew Jordan Smith’s class, and it was really cool to learn all about his lighting. He has gorgeous beauty light.” Dixie also gleaned valuable instruction from speaker programs by Jerry Ghionis, Jesh de Rox and Bill Hurter.

But attending the convention was just the icing on the cake and Dixie couldn’t be more grateful for winning the Hy Sheanin. “Life after receiving the Hy Sheanin Scholarship has been one fine ride,” she says. “I am so incredibly grateful to have been awarded this scholarship because it has enabled me to start and grow my business.”

It’s clear that Dixie Dixon has both the passion and the business savvy to elevate her career to a status that is shared by many past Hy Sheanin recipients. But, perhaps more importantly, she possesses those qualities of character that make her more than just a photographer to her clients. And, although most of her career still lies ahead of her, she is able to offer some sage advice to any photographers considering applying for the scholarship: “The biggest thing is authenticity. Don’t try to copy what has been done before. You have your own personality and that’s going to show in your photographs. The more you can work on that and go for what you really feel good about and what you feel passionate about, the more it will show in your images.”

Jared Smith is a freelance writer/editor and the former features editor for Rangefinder Publishing. He is currently living and teaching in South Korea.