As part of a recent trip to Spain and France, Design daily interviewed British architecture and interiors photographer, Richard Powers at his home in Antibes. The self-taught photographer divulges what led him to this type of photography and why he moved to the south of France to do it.
All photography by Richard Powers.
While he has photographed houses for more than a dozen interior and architectural books and contributed a huge number of stories to the world's most prestigious interiors magazines, Powers first began taking his photography seriously after a returning from a trip to Australia and Asia. Having shot a few dozen rolls of 35mm film while he was away he realised when he had them processed that he had some natural ability and despite having just completed a degree in business studies Powers took a job in a professional photography supplies shop.
During his next trip to South America he took a hundred rolls of film with him and on his return to the UK managed to get a number of shots published in the travel sections of magazines. With his future career path rapidly becoming clear, Powers' next trip was to Central America was a fully commissioned affair, capturing specific images for a photo library. The range of images required many weeks of travel - more time than his remaining holidays allowed and so it became necessary for Powers to stretch the truth a little and pretend a friend had broken their leg in order to extend his trip by an extra two weeks. While he managed to keep his job, he realised soon after returning to the UK that he would need to leave the day job and take up photography full time. While travel photography formed the majority of Powers' early portfolio, he was commissioned by a friend to shoot some commercial interiors and with these to show to art directors, other commissions followed and he began being commissioned by interior magazines.
Dd: Your photographs have been featured in the world's best interior magazines. When did the book phase of your career start?
RP: Tropical Minimal was my first book released by Thames & Hudson in 2006. I did that with my wife, Danielle Miller who is an interiors writer. My second book was called Beyond Bawa. That was done with the writer David Robson and published by Thames & Hudson in 2007. Since then I have mainly been working with the writer Dominic Bradbury, starting with The Iconic House: Architectural Masterworks since 1900 for Thames & Hudson (released in 2009).
RP: I have worked on four more books with Dominic since that one and produced two books with Karen McCartney for Penguin Lantern (Superhouse 2014 and White Rooms which is to be released shortly). I have also done a second book with Danielle, called New Paris Style which came out in 2012 and shot the images for the third Piet Boon book, Piet Boon III. In between all that I also did the photography for two books written by Phyllis Richardson, Living Modern and Living Modern Tropical released in 2010 and 2012.
Dd: What books are you currently working on?
RP: I work a lot with Dominic Bradbury and he’s always pitching new book projects to publishers so sometimes I loose track of what I’m supposed to be doing. At one time I had 5 books on the go at the one time! At the moment I’m working on a second book for Piet Boon and just about to start a book with Rizzoli – my first book for them – and I’m contributing about half of the images for a new book on the work of Craig Elwood. I’ve just completed a book with Dominic for Penguin called Creative Country Homes and Karen McCartney's White Rooms for Penguin Lantern and Waterside Modern for Thames & Hudson are just about to come out. Quite a lot really!
Dd: You've just flown home this morning. What can you tell me about your trip?
RP: I’ve just come back from a flight over to Chicago to shoot for Architectural Digest who I have been working a lot with recently. It was to photograph a David Adler house on the shore of Lake Michigan. It was a two day shoot and then I took a flight over to New York to shoot a house in Brooklyn on spec for the Architect Philippe Bauwmann. It was an interesting urban new build wedged in between an old weatherboard Brooklyn house and a block of apartments. The site was formerly a garage but this was knocked down to make way for the new house. That evening I drove up state about 150 miles to a place called Chatham in upstate New York to photograph a house on spec for a couple of designers.
Dd: So that was 5 days of shooting in 7 days?
RP: Yes, that’s right, five days shooting and a day travelling each way. Like all of my trips I pack it in and rarely take any time off between shoots. I work this way so I can get home to the South of France. I’m usually away about 130 days a year either travelling or shooting – just a little over a third of the year - so it’s about as much as I can bare to be away. The amount of work I do is sort of controlled by where I live rather than any plan. I don't take on individual one day shoots unless they are in or very close to France because it’s just not practical. I try to group a number of shoots together and make trips out of them doing several shoots in the one country with just a small amount of driving or a short flight in between.
Dd: You’ve been based in France for the last few years, where were you before that?
RP: I was originally based in London, then lived in Sydney for 7 years but my work was becoming more and more international and Sydney was just too difficult to use as a base. I really had the choice of staying in Sydney (which we loved) and not pursuing an international career, or moving somewhere more centrally located. We decided to come back to Europe and France was the natural choice as my wife, Danielle, speaks good French and Nice airport is perfect for what I do as it is a short hop from everywhere in Europe and has regular flights.
Dd: Is there a method you use or an order you prefer to shoot in?
RP: Most of the time I’ve never seen the house or building before – and I prefer it that way. Usually the best angles are obvious to you straight away so it’s not like you are learning all that much by looking at someone else’s images. This method really came about when I got the job to do The Iconic House for Thames & Hudson. I wanted to bring some fresh new pictures to the book so I didn't want to be influenced by past examples. Some photographers want to know everything about a house – look at the plans and work out the direction the light moves in and that sort of thing - I prefer to see each house with fresh eyes.
Dd: I guess you don’t really have the luxury of that sort of thing anyway?
RP: I usually get two days to shoot a house when I am working for the American magazines but others are generally just one. I’m pretty good at figuring out the sun orientation and which order to shoot the rooms in but it really depends on the scale of the house and the location. When I shot the 'High Desert House' for example, it was a really long day…up at 3am in LA to drive out to Joshua tree to catch the early light. I get very excited when I have the chance to photograph exceptional houses so I tend to go overboard. In this case I finished at dusk at around 9pm and then had to drive back to LA to catch an early morning flight over to NYC …a typical day for me!
Dd: What do you do you when you’ve travelled a vast distance and the weather is really bad?
RP: You just have to get on with it.
I’ve photographed in the pouring rain in the middle of winter. It was somewhere in Pennsylvania and the shoot actually turned out really well. It just had a different feel to it. It’s not ideal but when there is no other option you just have to make the best of a bad situation.
Dd: Do magazines always want blue skies or are there a few that are happy to run stories that are shot in gloomy conditions in rain or snow?
RP: Shoots don’t work when it’s heavily overcast. The light goes very flat and dull. The ideal is high white cloud on a summers day where everything is green outside and you have soft directional light. That’s nirvana for interior photography. Mind you it doesn’t happen that often. Over the years you learn how to shoot in different light conditions and how to make it work. I’m not one for re-touching my shots with blue skies. Generally what you see is what happened on the day. There is a use for Photoshop but I use it to bring the look of the image back to the way the eye sees the house – which is not always the way a digital chip sees things.
Dd: How important is the choice of camera?
RP: The camera is just a tool. I’m a self-taught photographer who started off using analogue and moved into digital when it reached a high enough quality. I choose the gear that works reliably for me and the type of work I do. Everything in my kit is chosen because it works and gets used constantly. I have to travel as light as possible so I can’t take gear just in case of some unusual situation. I need a back up in case something fails, so I have a main camera but carry a digital Nikon backup and a small Fuji range finder camera. I also have the iPhone but it would have to be pretty desperate to get to that level.
Actually for a book I’m working on at the moment I am using my iPhone for some of the shots – I’m using all four of my cameras…..but generally its just the medium format camera with a super high quality digital back and that gives me everything I need.
D.d: What would you say is the hallmark of an iconic house – given you’ve visited lots of them?
RP: They all seem to have a very peaceful quality. They tend to be quite meditative. They are generally in amazing locations where a contemplative mood is possible I have to admit.
What’s been your favourite house to be in?
RP: I’d say ‘Fallingwater’. There are lots that have been amazing but not all of them are what I would be happy to live in long term. Having ‘Fallingwater’ all to myself for an entire day was incredible. I love mad houses like the Pierre Cardin house ‘Palais Bulles’ at Théoule-sur-Mer. That was also a favourite along with ‘The High Desert House’ by Kendrick Bangs Kellogg. The style isn’t so much the issue, I leave my personal taste at home and just get carried away with the imaginative qualities of a house. Some of them are completely visionary, while others are meticulously made. Either way they are a joy to photograph.
For a look at his work for Thames & Hudson go to their website here.
For more on his work for Penguin Lantern visit their website here.