The Design Observer Group

Posted 10.18.09

Ken McCown

Found Landscapes

McCown Marfa

"Combined total impact”: this is a phrase Richard Neutra used to describe his thinking about architecture. Neutra thought hard about how his buildings affected users, about the sensations his designs aroused. You can sense this in Julius Shulman’s photographs of Neutra’s buildings – and in fact Neutra scripted the exact moments he wanted the photographs to capture. For example, at the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, he dictated the exact location and time for what became one of the most iconic photographs of the mid-century era. The shot occurred right after sunset — a sublime view of the house with the San Jacinto Mountains as backdrop to the elegant modern design. The house is perfectly lit, and a woman lounges gracefully by the pool, looking away from the camera, toward the mountains. For Neutra, these moments clarified the harmony that could occur among form, light, texture, climate and color, with buildings and landscapes attuned to the rhythms of nature.


As a designer trained in both architecture and landscape architecture — and as former director of Neutra's VDL House in Los Angeles — I strive to achieve this kind of “combined total impact,” and I use photography to explore the factors that create harmonious interactions of buildings and landscapes and nature. In this sense, my photographs have no center; they don’t represent objects in a field, but rather a continuum of sensory inputs that construct an atmosphere, a feeling, a place. Photography is a strong medium, even a resistant one: its comparatively precise record of information challenges the abstractions we designers create when we draw (manually or digitally).

I use different cameras: Canon Rebel cameras, both digital and film, and the Canon 5D Digital SLR. If it’s just point-and-shoot, I've used Pentax Optio S, Nikon CoolPix, Casio Exilim and Panasonic Lumix cameras. Whatever the equipment, photography allows me to tell stories about places that are rich with information. I have been inspired by the works of Edward Hopper, David Plowden, Henry Plummer and also by numerous contacts on my Flickr photostream, where I engage in discussion almost daily.