Palm Springs is the sort of place where taglines like ‘modernist Mecca’ and ‘hedonist hideaway’ get bandied around – and for good reason too. The resort city emerges from the desert like a gleaming oasis of mid-century jewels, palm trees and pools bathed in 354-odd days of sunshine and a balmy climate that rarely drops below 18°C degrees. Not so for Australian photographer Tom Blachford, who instead has revealed a darker side of the pleasure-seeking town.
For a new exhibition launched this week at Black Eye Gallery in Sydney, the Melbourne-based photographer has unveiled the next and third instalment in his ‘Midnight Modern’ series – a project that has taken him on several pilgrimages to Palm Springs over the past few years, capturing the area’s modernist houses by moonlight.
Blachford explains, ‘The homes stand as shrines to hedonism, cocktails and the sun. Though the images are nostalgic for some who experienced that era, for me they are like time travel to an era I would never have been able to experience otherwise.’ But it was a happenstance night shoot during his first trip that got him hooked.
Initially Blachford had shot the series covertly in the veil of the night – not that his seemingly staged photographs would belie a lack of access. During production of the second chapter he reached out to the president of the Palm Springs Modernist Committee (PS-MODCOM) and suddenly ‘incredible possibilities’ – and a stable of vintage cars – opened up to him.
The presence of the Palm Springs community is always alluded to but never overtly realised. ‘The homes provide the stage for stories to play out,’ explains Blachford, who has previously toyed with the idea of introducing people. ‘If I provided the characters too I would rob people the opportunity to do that themselves.’
Instead, Blachford has cast a fitting set of unlikely characters – classic cars originating from the late-Fifties to mid-Sixties. ‘Each car represents an unseen character in the scene and acts as a guide for the viewer to help create their own narrative as to what is going on behind those walls,’ says the photographer. ‘I have always wanted to create tension in the scenes as if they were still-frames from a movie where the action is about the start or has just ended – heavy silence and anticipation of what is coming next.’
With each visit, Blachford’s understanding of the moonlight has matured and, bolstered by additional resources, he has developed the aesthetic qualities of the series’ third iteration further. Most notably, he was able to experiment with wet roads and ‘freeze’ the stars in the night sky; more so than ever his images are imbued with the cinematic quality of a carefully crafted Hollywood set.
More so, each image is a perfectly composed vignette, with everything from shadows to architectural details in pin-sharp focus. ‘The images in the series lie just beyond our perception, past the limits of what our brains and eyes can process in a single moment. It isn’t until the camera renders the scene that you can fully appreciate everything at once,’ he explains. ‘The long exposure compresses these moments into a single viewable image, and also transports you back in time. The houses and cars in these images appear almost exactly as they did over fifty years ago, like portals in time.’
Yet, the series is still not complete, although a book is in the works. ‘The two John Lautner homes on the hill are still my [Holy] grails that I have not been able to access yet,’ he says.
Palm Springs’ decadent qualities aside, there’s still a sensitive history to the area that Blachford would like to bring to the fore. ‘The era in question, while amazing for design, also played host to incredibly important human struggles for rights and equality,’ he adds. ‘There is a contradiction of these perfect homes and scenes of hedonism going on a time where a lot of people were fighting hard for justice. This isn’t lost on me and it’s something I would like to explore further with the series.