A Midnight Tribute to Palm Springs

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Australian photographer Tom Blachford first caught our eyes two years ago, when the first Midnight Modern series was born. If you had told us that his lurking around at 1 am in the morning, wondering around in the darkness would lead to work being featured in almost every design publication worldwide and become their own monograph coffee table book we would have been skeptical. Yet, Blachford is resilient and tactic, having come up with a concept so unique and stunning that we can’t help coming back for more.

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Like most works worthy of praise for years after they come around, Blachford’s series of portraits of iconic mid-century homes in Palm Springs takes viewers on a trip – in this case, we go deep down the desert landscapes and into the hedonistic world of Palm Springs in the 60s. When we thought we had seen all there was to see, Blachford released two more collections, all carrying that same film noir moodiness and all shot with the moonlight as the only source of light. Having been to Palm Springs over seven times since, his extensive planning, intense shooting schedule, and endless nights chasing the moonlight has become his pilgrimage, one he has made every 3 months.

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With that, Midnight Modern III, pictured below, lures us to explore the interplay between architecture, moonlight, mountains and the tension of an unspoken narrative. For those who have been to Palm Springs before, the series gives an intimate glimpse inside familiar residential marvels shot between 4:30-5:30am , including the iconic home of Frank Sinatra. Those who haven’t been before, get to experience an almost surreal scenario, where the photographer went as far as to wet the road to create the right ambience.

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I would really like to know more about your personal relationship to Palm Springs. Does it stem from an appreciation for design and architecture or is it more romantic, like a way of life?

Initially I fell in love with the idea of the cocktails, sunshine and hedonism of Palm Springs. It wasn’t until I arrived in the town that I fell in love with the architecture. It has sent me deep down a rabbit hole of appreciation of everything mid-century, it was truly an exceptional era in design. It certainly helps that it’s such an amazing place to visit, I have been back 7 times in the past 3 years and it never feels like a chore. I actually crave it.

Why do you choose to shoot at night?

Initially I was seeking to show the town in a new light, it has been photographed so extensively it seemed like a natural option for me to explore as I had not seen really any photos of it at night, and especially not by moonlight. After the first few images I was hooked on the surreal aesthetic the moonlight lends to the images.

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It’s amazing that these shots are all lit by moonlight. What were some challenges you faced while working to get the perfect exposure?

Shooting by moonlight has posed an endless set of personal and technical challenges. I have been forced to study the moon closely and get to know its movements and idiosyncrasies. Whilst the moon is just as predictable as the sun, thousands of years either side of the present day, it operates at a frantic pace. In 5 days the moon changes more than the sun does in 5 months, swinging wildly and rising nearly an hour later each night. Focusing was a was the biggest challenge which I overcame with the help of military grade lasers that the camera could lock on to in the darkness.

Do you feel that this technique could work in other parts of the world? Or is it something about Palm Springs that makes it work so well? 

This is a question I constantly ask myself and really one I have to explore to answer. Palm Springs does certainly have what appears to be a set of perfect conditions. Being a desert there is rarely any clouds at night, there are no street lamps in the original tract suburbs and the valley provides a shield from the light pollution of LA 2 hours away. This allows me to shoot the homes solely by the light of the moon with almost no interference from other light sources or atmospheric conditions that might soften the hardness of the light.

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You were given exclusive permission to enter and photograph some of the most famous homes in the area. How did you manage that?

I have been incredibly lucky and humbled by the response of the community to my work. A chance email to Chris Menrad, the president of the PS-MODCOM (Palm Springs Modernism Committee) opened almost every door to me in the community, except for a few. The Kaufman house was the hardest to gain access to, in the end it was a mixture of bullying and begging that gained my 11th hour access to the property. We had 20 minutes notice that we were going to be allowed in. The approving email from the owner started with 2 paragraphs of admonishment (his words) and  finished with “be outside the property at 7.29pm, access may be granted”, it was sent at 7:09 PM.

Any particular home you did not get to shoot?

There are 2 Lautner houses on the hill that have eluded me but I think deep down I know that there is nothing left to shoot of them.

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Do you feel that your aesthetic changes depending on where you are or do you stick to a distinct style?

Definitely, I like to try new things everywhere I go and continually experiment with how I approach things. Sometimes the technique doesn’t work, sometimes I just don’t really connect with a place. It’s trial and error. I think it’s important sometimes to cut my losses, put down the camera and really enjoy a place without being angsty about whether a new series is going to come from it. I have definitely learned to let go and not force things.

What are some other places you go to for photography?

My partner Kate and I (also a photographer) try and travel to as many new places as we can, usually we are drawn to natural beauty and we both love stark landscapes like deserts, glaciers and volcanoes. Nowhere has my heart like Palm Springs though, it has truly become my muse and I’m not sure anywhere will ever take its place for that.

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What are some other subjects you like to shoot?

I really do love shooting all types of architecture. I’m always drawn to creating graphic images and buildings provide an endless array of lines, curves, textures and colors to play with and distill into tight compositions.

Where are you traveling to next, and what are you working on?

What’s next is definitely a common and often paralyzing question but I think it’s important to take some time to bask in the response to Midnight Modern. It’s been a wild ride I have barely been able to keep up with, and I need to study within myself how it came about and give myself time to organically discover the next thing I’m going to be this passionate about. That said, I’m not quite finished with Midnight Modern yet, so there is likely a trip back to Palm Springs in the next year, probably once the summer sun calms down and hibernates again for the winter. The colder it is the earlier the moon comes out to play and I can get to work.

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Any comments?