Born in 1976 the United Kingdom and currently based in Shanghai, Peter Dixie is an architectural and landscape photographer, educator and lecturer on the Philosophy of Photography. Dixie graduated with a BA in Philosophy in Bristol, and then settled in Japan where he trained at the professional photo lab DOI Tech Tokyo, learning hand printing darkroom technique in both black and white and colour. He returned then to the United Kingdom and studied Professional Photography at The Arts Institute at Bournemouth (now The Arts University College at Bournemouth). Finally he moved to Shanghai to pursue personal projects. Since then he has been working as a photographer full time and founded LOTAN Architectural Photography: a specialist firm committed to producing the finest photographs of contemporary architecture, urban design and the built environment. Dixie not merely photographs, he scrutinizes, studies, analyses, with a methodical way of working. He observes the substantial changes of urban and rural land in contemporary China, while questioning the constantly shifting sense of space and time. Through his several series, Dixie portrays places of transition, “landscape of possibility” as he says.
The interview below was conducted on 29 January 2014 when Peter Dixie participated in the collective exhibition “The Temporary”, which was set up by the curator Rachel Marsden and held in Birmingham (United Kingdom).
Do you remember your initial experience at making photography?
When I was 13 or 14, I started attending evening classes at the local adult education centre. Skateboarding really provided the motivation to make pictures, although I never made any good skateboarding images myself, I collected the best images from magazines. At first I used a camera borrowed from the tutor until eventually I saved up and bought a 35mm SLR which I used for many years. As a teenager I didn't take photography very seriously – only after university when I was living in Japan did I really try to make better or more interesting pictures, and to look carefully at other photographers work and start to push harder to achieve particular results that I imagined.
You currently live and work in Shanghai, where urban planning undergoes constant transformations. Is there a notion of impermanence conveyed in your artworks?
The Impermanent is very much a part of my work which examines landscapes that are, for the most part, as I photograph them only for a short and uncertain span of time. Further to that, in many cases they show temporary and improvised uses of the land – pathways created by pedestrian traffic, vegetable plots on land cleared for later construction, villages in the process of being demolished and stripped of their reusable or recyclable materials.
How have China and its art world impacted on your photographic practice?
Certainly the "Hinterland" work is a response to China and a reaction directly to the landscape that I found here and the interest that I found in it, particularly as a reflection of the incredible processes of change that the country is experiencing. As far as the art world is concerned I am very disconnected from it. It is extremely commercial – perhaps that is not just the case in China – and I don't find that money chooses the most interesting work. Commercially the biggest art sales for photography are for individual print which, while they might be part of a larger series, are not sold as such. Individually any photograph has so much that could be down to chance. Meanings can be constructed and articulated far more precisely through the gathering and arranging of image sets, and it is this that I am most interested in doing.
Let’s continue talking about your series "Hinterland", in which you photograph landscapes of the outskirts of Shanghai, which you have eventually termed "landscape of possibility". The photograph n°23 is particularly interesting, notably the contrast between the austere electric powerhouse and the traditional tower on the background. Can you tell me more about it?
Interestingly this is chronologically the first image to be included in the edit that I made for my website, and I think thematically it set some precedents for later images. The elevated placement of the camera was something that I had in mind but this image proved to me that this was something I wanted to reproduce throughout the series, I also owe a big thank you to a conversation that I had with Kalle Kataila in that regard.
You have portrayed the UK pavilion during its construction for the Shanghai Expo in 2010. What do you think of the site now? Would you be interested to document the aftermath of the World Expo?
I haven't been back to the Expo site, except for the redeveloped water front area on the West Bund. That is a very interesting space and really hosts a lot of different activities – skateboarding, longboarding, bouldering, parkour, slacklining, basketball... There is some beautiful landscape design in that area too, as well as the pavilions from the recent Architectural biennial.
Documenting the aftermath of the Expo might be interesting, perhaps looking at how those spaces are being used – I have heard that in the evening some areas are quite busy with cyclists and motorcyclists enjoying the relatively car-free environment. The types of space created by this transition are somewhat different to those on the outskirts of the city. No trace is now left of the small-scale and somewhat chaotically arranged residential areas that were there previously, and only a few traces remain of former industrial structures. The landscape of the Expo itself was highly ordered and it is most likely that as development of that land occurs it will be highly ordered and on a relatively large scale.
Do you think your work is close to other Chinese photographers? If so/not, why?
Most of the Chinese photographers that I know of work in ways quite different to mine, being either staged photography, or personal, intimate, everyday images. There are however several photographers who work in landscape that I have a lot of respect for: Zhang Xiao, Zhang Kechun, You Eris Li, and Liu Ke, stand out particularly. These I admire in that they achieve something that I cannot – for example the balance between people and landscape in Zhang Xiao's Coastline. If my work were to be compared favourably to any of theirs, I would consider that a great compliment.
What are your future projects?
"Hinterland" is ongoing, but moving beyond Shanghai to development around and between cities elsewhere in China, and also switching to black & white. I always have several projects that I work on at a time, most are never completed, so it would be easier to talk about them once they have reached a suitable conclusion. I am never sure with most what direction they will take and after my experience with trying to photograph in Shanghai, I am very wary of pushing work in an inappropriate direction by trying to fit it to a preconceived notion. I continue to follow what interests me, and of that what I find can be interpreted into interesting imagery.