There is a long list of place around the world that have been so extensively photographed one wonders if it’s even possible to cast them in new light, present something new, or keep the mythos alive. Palm Springs falls upon that list with its decades of modernist architecture set amongst a stark desert backdrop. And yet Melbourne-based photographer Tom Blachford continues to capture its essence with a refreshing and mystical vibrance. Blachford’s series “Midnight Modern,” now in its third iteration, continues to defy time. Employing the light of the moon, the photographer captures serenity through structure and binds together that which has made the destination alluring to so many, for so long.
Shot across five nights on Blachford’s seventh trip to Palm Springs in three years, the latest crop of images feels equally as inspired as the last two iterations. This, Blachford explains, pertains to the fact that he keeps getting drawn back. “I am fascinated by this feeling that the city is both nostalgic and current. It transports you back in time to these houses and this scenery—to this lifestyle that has been there for 70 years.” Knowledge continues to provide inspiration. As he notes, “It’s kind of a shrine to hedonism and sunlight and cocktails and all the good things. But, as I learn more about this period, all of this was going on at a time of massive historical moments.” Blachford remains enthralled by the city’s preservation and tenacity.
“Every time I go back,” Blachford continues, “my relationship with the moon and my understanding of its behavior deepens. I can kind of predict for quite a few more days after my arrival where it will be and when it will be doing what I want.” He uses daylight to anticipate what the moon will do, but his night shoots do employ a military-spec green laser for landing focus.
Blachford began, more or less, as a snoop—shooting by night without permission. Over the years, his access has increased exponentially. “In every way,” he adds, “Not just in terms of access to property but the richness of the experience—being able to meet the people who live in these places.” He refers to the homeowners as the bearers of responsibility in keeping the city alive and on the cultural spectrum. “It’s getting to the point where people email me and tell me about their house. I also found I could knock on anyone’s door and people will be friendly.” Thus far, he has a 100% success rate—something he attributes to the shared appreciation of the area’s unique beauty.
This time, however, Blachford sought to up the ante. The third series could not be an exact replica of his previous two, so he tightened his vision. “One of the biggest differences is that I decided to freeze the stars. For me, that was a technical hurtle I wanted to overcome,” he says. Rather than shooting through a minute portion of the image, they hold their place. Further, he explains, “It was about getting a more cinematic aesthetic—like wet roads, that was an experiment. And most obviously the cars, the cars become the characters in the scenes, where we can imagine who would have been driving. It gives a path for the viewers to go down with the image.” All of the cars (but one) match the time period of the houses, from 1957 to ’65.
Of equal importance, from a production standpoint, is that Blachford tries to manipulate the shots as little as possible. “There was a little more work here, because of the stars,” he says. “All the lighting and effects are from either the moon or neighbors’ lights that I couldn’t control. Usually stuff in the rear added a great natural effect, like pool lights on palm trees.”
A series like this does make one wonder how it impacts the perception of people who haven’t yet been to Palm Springs. From framing to staging (albeit minimal for the most part), these are idealized forms of a city. Blachford doesn’t want that to impede on people’s ability to love the real thing. In fact, it’s lead him to offer some advice. “I think that one of then biggest things about the city is that the mountains during the day have a haze. It’s not until the sun goes down and they’re lit by the moon that you get such a visual. The mountains look painted or completely fake.” He also makes clear that “I would hope that I could continue to introduce our generation to the existence of this city and that it then helps with the preservation. It survived this long and most survive a lot longer.”
There are a few ways to see the latest “Midnight Modern” works. Blachford will be having a solo gallery show at Blackeye Gallery in Sydney from 24 May through 11 June 2016. There will be an opening night celebration from 6-8PM on 26 May. Just before that, the work is will be exhibited at ART16 Olympia in London (20 through 22 May 2016), at the ARTITLED Gallery booth. The series will also continue to live on the Midnight Modern website and Instagram.
Images courtesy of Tom Blachford