Behind the Lens | Richard Powers

  • Photographer Richard Powers can claim a remarkable credential – he has photographed more houses deemed ‘iconic’ than anyone on the planet.

    As a renowned photographer, Richard Powers has had 23 books published to date. However, his work with researcher and writer Dominic Bradbury, producing a series of global iconic architecture and interior books, defines his oeuvre.

    This feature originally appeared in est magazine issue 46: Design Renaissance

    High Desert House (1983) designed by architects Kendrick Bangs Kellogg in Joshua Tree, California is defined by its innovative, organic roof design.

    Post-university, with a mission not to get a proper job, Richard travelled to Guatemala photographing the Semana Santa parade in Antigua. He had an epiphany – he would spend his life as a photographer. “Since that day I have not stopped taking images, travelling through over 80 countries, on all forms of transport,” says Richard. Always drawn to the natural environment, it is still important to him in anchoring the architecture and providing framing opportunities while climate and seasons can evoke mood and atmosphere.

    In photographing such well-documented architectural projects he maintains an attitude that eschews research to ensure his own distinct approach is readily achieved. “I purposefully do not prepare pre-shoot. I much prefer to approach each project as if it has never been photographed. This gives me a fresh perspective, without any preconceptions, and enables me to naturally find the angles that are true to my eye,” he says.

    An abstracted view of High Desert House (1993) by Kendrick Bangs Kellogg. The stone-coloured concrete ‘petals’ that form the roof have earnt it the name – the armadillo – while the interior includes several boulders.

    Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer’s own home for a short time, Casa das Canoas (1952-53) outside Rio de Janeiro – surrounded by forest and close to the sea.

    Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta’s Greenberg House (1991) in West Los Angeles shows the influence of Luis Barragan and illustrates how a house and garden become one.

    So while his all-time enduring favourites are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (1937) – which he describes as the grand-daddy of iconic houses – and the mind-boggling engineering of High Desert House by Kendrick Bang Kellogg in Joshua Tree (1993) – he is diplomatic enough to put the rest of his body of work as equal third!

    With more than twenty coffee table books to his name, he is drawn to the complete expression of what a good book can deliver. “They are just such wonderful objects – that can both inform and delight. For me, the imagery, graphics and text should be strong and singular from cover to cover,” Richard says.

    And while books provide a lasting record, his work for prestigious international shelter magazines is an equally important part of his client base, with Architectural Digest, World of Interiors and Elle Decoration all regularly featuring his work. He likes to keep an open mind about where the houses he shoots will eventually appear.

    “Sometimes you know instantly, if the house has a distinct style or genre, which magazine will be interested, but from time-to-time you are thrown a curve ball by an editor who sees something in a project you didn’t envisage them being drawn to.”

    The entrance to architect Benthem Crouwel’s Almere House (1982-84) shows the experimental nature of this pre-fab house, as part of a new neighbourhood east of Amsterdam.

    And has he ever turned up to a house to find that it is unshootable or even difficult to capture? “Never,” he says, “they all have something special and because I arrive with no preconceptions, I can’t be disappointed. Sometimes the house needs to be edited of the day-to-day clutter that accumulates… that can be a struggle!”

    When it comes to personal style, Richard lives in Nice in the South of France, in a characterful old house that has been restored by his wife Danielle. While a thousand images and decorating ideas fill his visual memory, the house has distinct demands that required a certain creative response. “We did take some ideas on paint palette (greys) from Florence Baudoux’s apartment in Paris, that I had photographed and Danielle had written and produced for our New Paris Style book,” he says.

    When asked about a plan for the comprehensive archive of globally significant houses he’s collected, Richard says, “since starting this ‘iconic house’ project, it has become my life’s work to make it available to future generations, and I am in the process of working through how that might be best achieved.”

    And in the immediate future, the iconic franchise goes Nordic with a search for houses that fulfil the criteria of, in Richard’s words, “unique, ahead of their time, stand out or just mind-blowing!”

    The Iconic British House by Dominic Bradbury and Richard Powers (published by Thames & Hudson) is out in 2023.

    Architect Albert Frey – who is rightly associated with ‘desert modernism’ designed the Frey House ll in 1964 with in-built furniture and the rock penetrating the house interior, ensuring the landscape was omnipresent in the house.

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