1100 East Sierra Way in the Indian Canyons neighbourhood of Palm Springs
A perplexed Kate Ballis is staring at the sky. A light blanket of cloud looms overhead, casting a low-contrast haze over the pool and garden of the mid-century Palm Springs residence we’re standing in. With dancer-like finesse, she begins gesturing her hands at the sky. As if by the same magic that permeates her otherworldly infrared photography, a shard of sun pierces through. Ballis, relieved, fires off a burst of frames.
PHOTOGRAPHY: KATE BALLIS INTERVIEW: JESSICA KLINGELFUSS
A vintage Lincoln car sits in the driveway of an Indian Canyons residence
Seven Lakes Country Club
The Melbourne-based photographer first began her Infra Realism series in February 2017, while attending Modernism Week in Palm Springs. ‘I worked out pretty early on that my infrared photos would only produce the desired aesthetic if the sun was out and the sky was predominantly clear,’ she explains of her ‘weather dance’.
She had photographed the mid-century mecca’s modernist houses, pools, vintage cars and desertscape many times before – yet, she lamented, it had become ‘ordinary’. ‘I wanted a way to express the city through fresh eyes,’ Ballis explains, ‘and the infrared camera completely changed the way I viewed the desert.’
The Alexander Construction Company built 15 Swiss Miss houses in Palm Springs. Created by draftsman Charles Dubois, the house resembles a Swiss chalet with tropical, Tiki details and is instantly recognisable by its striking A-frame shape
A former media and entertainment lawyer, Ballis traded in the corporate grind for fine arts after a serendipitous encounter with fashion photographer and artist Miles Aldridge while on vacation in Los Angeles in 2012. Recognising her potential, Aldridge offered Ballis an assistant role with him at his London studio.
These days, Ballis spends much of her time on airplanes and in cars with her partner and fellow photographer Tom Blachford (who too has turned his camera lens on Palm Springs in his moonlit Midnight Modern series). ‘Adventure has to be the best part of my job,’ she says. ‘I’m constantly planning the next destination to photograph and finding ways to capture that place’s story in a way that feels as unexplored as the location itself.’
The pool at Palm Springs Tennis Club
Seven Lakes Country Club
Ballis was first drawn to Palm Springs after seeing Slim Aarons’ iconic photographs of the jet-set crew enjoying cocktails by the pool, with the arid mountains – which she likens to ‘a Hollywood set’ – towering in the background. Upon her first visit, she was instantly enamoured with the acute heat, thick air, and the surrealist quality of the landscape.
Using a full-frame Sony mirrorless camera converted to full spectrum with various infrared filters, Ballis has captured some of the desert city’s most memorable examples of modernist architecture, including the quirky, chalet-style Swiss Miss homes (a vestige of the Alexander Construction Company), Palm Springs Tennis Club, the Parker hotel, and of course, the ever-Instagrammed Ace Hotel & Swim Club.
‘There are spectrums of light, such as infrared, that cannot be seen by the human eye but the process of photography can make them visible. To me it’s the border of science and magic.’
The hyper-saturation of Infra Realism marks a stark visual departure from her previous series, Glace Noir, a moody undertaking capturing the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. ‘Both [series] explore otherworldly landscapes where life struggles to exist,’ she says. ‘From NASA and movies, we can imagine what the surfaces of Mars and Saturn look like, so it becomes strangely familiar. I try to take these “otherworldly” places and make them look even more foreign.’
Cue the appeal of infrared photography. ‘Healthy plants emit infrared light and take a certain colour through the process,’ she says, ‘so I started viewing Palm Springs as a lush oasis, where succulents and palm trees thrived.’ The exquisite landscaping framing Palm Springs’ storied modernist architecture captivated the photographer. ‘Through my art the colour blocks drew focus to the textures of the plants. It really brings the meticulous landscaping to the foreground, instead of blending into the desert tones of the mid-century homes.’
Twin Palms Estate. Ballis notes the prickles on the barrel cacti feel like ‘zip-ties’
For her most recent trip to Palm Springs, Ballis honed in even further on individual details – the reflection in a car mirror, tree trunks, or the pattern of brickwork. ‘So much of Palm Springs is perfectly curated and meticulously maintained, from the vintage cars in front of the mid-century houses, to the gardens that are tended to once or twice a week, the residents take so much pride in the details. You can express a lot about Palm Springs in a single close-up vignette.’
The Infra Realism project has since taken Ballis to Joshua Tree National Park, Arizona desert town Sedona, Chile’s Atacama Desert, and the Salar de Tunupa salt flats in Bolivia. She is currently researching for another series exploring Crete, Greece, and Somerset, England (the latter the birthplace of her parents), and will release a book for Infra Realism in October.
Ultimately, Ballis says she is transfixed with ‘making the unseen, seen’. ‘I’m really interested in energy and how we can feel it, but it’s not so easy to see,’ Ballis muses. ‘There are spectrums of light, such as infrared, that cannot be seen by the human eye but the process of photography can make them visible. To me it’s the border of science and magic.’ We’re certainly under her spell.
Ballis’ Infra Realism series has taken her beyond Palm Springs. Pictured, a Futuro House in Idyllwild, a picturesque township nestled in the San Jacinto mountains. Designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen, less than 100 copies of the prefabricated fibreglass home was created in the 1960s and 70s and sold around the world. ‘I have always gazed up to the top of the mountains behind Palm Springs and wondered what the scale of the trees up there might be,’ she explains. ‘This [Futuro House] was carried on a truck up the windy road to Idyllwild. The road was reportedly closed off as the house was the width of the road.’