Every year since May 2013, Tom Blachford has visited Palm Springs in California to photograph mid-century homes at nighttime. The works are part of the Melbourne photographer’s aptly named Midnight Modern series.
Each instalment captures Palm Springs’ iconic, mid-century architecture and surrounding desert landscape at night. The photos of homes cinematically bathed in moonlight are both moody and serene.
“Palm Springs has the ability to transport you back in time,” Blachford says. “To be able to share that feeling through the series has kept me coming back.”
The ongoing project is highly regarded in Palm Springs, where residents grant him access to their private homes – designed by famous architects including Richard Neutra and John Lautner – and where he exhibited Series II during Modernism Week in 2015.
After an exhibition in Sydney last year, New York-based publisher powerHouse approached Blachford to turn Midnight Modern into a book. Midnight Modern: Palm Springs Under the Full Moon was published in February.
We spoke to Blachford – who has just wrapped up shooting his fourth Midnight Modern series – about his influences, creating his first book and being invited to photograph some of the world’s most iconic homes, ahead of his exhibition, Nocturnal Reflection: Midnight Modern III, at Modern Times in Fitzroy.
Broadsheet: Palms Springs has an inimitable history – it’s been the subject of a number of renowned, even iconic, artists’ work, from Slim Aarons to Ed Ruscha. Were you influenced by other artists before you began the series? Did you feel a need to explore Palm Springs in a way that hadn’t been done before?
Tom Blachford: My biggest inspiration for the aesthetic and feeling of the series came from American photographer Gregory Crewdson, who’s work blew my mind the first time I saw it and has informed my approach. But it was undoubtedly the work of Slim Aarons and Julius Shulman that attracted me to Palm Springs in the first place.
I always wanted to take a step back from Crewdson’s work, which revolves around the people and narrative of a scene. I think of my images as being the “set” for a story, both imagined in the mind of the viewer, and in reality as these houses have been the stage for countless real dramas over the decades.
I was really surprised to hear that it had never been captured by moonlight. As the series has progressed I feel so lucky to have found a way to show the town in a new way, particularly for the homeowners who live there and know it so intimately.
BS: You’ve had several exhibitions of the Midnight Modern series and now you’re releasing your first book. How was the process of creating the book, and how was it different from the exhibition format?
TB: I really enjoyed the process of creating the book. It forced me to think of the body of work as a whole and what I wanted to convey. I initially toyed with the idea of displaying the images in a chronological order … but I went with the idea of breaking it down into suburbs. I wanted to treat it as if it might be the first or only book that someone might have about Palm Springs, so it was important to show the range of architecture and the feeling of different areas.
While I love the epic “starchitect” commissioned homes, it was the simple Tract homes built en masse by the Alexander Company that really sparked my interest in the town, so it was important for them to be given prominence.
BS: There are so many cornerstones of Modernist architecture in Palm Springs and you had access to houses that are mostly inaccessible to the general public. Having this one-on-one experience with the buildings, spaces and surrounding landscapes must have been very special. If there was one house you could live in for a week, which would it be?
TB: Gaining access to homes most people only dream of has been an incredible journey. My love for architecture has grown exponentially since starting the series. I still think the Kaufman Desert house, featured on the cover of the book, is my favorite. It was built to be able to fully enjoy the environment around it – swim by the pool during the day and then utilise the open top-floor room to light a fire in the evening would be amazing.
That house also holds a place in my heart as it was by far the most difficult to gain access to. The owner is notoriously difficult to get on side with. It took me a month of using all my channels to try and get an in with him. I have actually described the whole incident in the book!
An exhibition of Blachford’s third series Nocturnal Reflection: Midnight Modern III, runs at Modern Times from Thursday March 9 to Thursday March 23. The opening, which will celebrate the launch of his book Midnight Modern: Palm Springs Under the Full Moon, goes from 6pm to 8pm on Thursday March 9. Blachford will also be signing books at Modern Times on Saturday March 11 from 9am.