Photographing Palm Springs Modernism by Moonlight

Tom Blachford’s photographs in Midnight Modern were taken between midnight and 5am in Palm Springs, illuminated only by the moon.

Tom Blachford, “Donald Wexler, 1962, 1963 Studebaker Avanti” (courtesy the artist)

From Julius Shulman’s architectural studies to Robert Doisneau’s saturated shots of martini parties and pool-side lounging, the modernist architecture of Palm Springs is well-photographed. Over three years, starting in 2013, Australian photographer Tom Blachford aimed to capture another side of this California desert city by prowling its streets by the light of the moon.

Cover of Midnight Modern by Tom Blachford (courtesy Powerhouse Books)

Midnight Modern: Palm Springs Under the Full Moon, out February 14 from Powerhouse Books, is a monograph of Blachford’s after-midnight long exposures of midcentury homes, and the palm trees and mountains that loom above them. The blue tone of the night sky makes them feel like cinematic stills, complete with period-appropriate vehicles parked on the silent roads. While some are well-known sites, such as the Kaufmann Desert House or the Frank Sinatra Twin Palms House, others are less familiar 1950s and ’60s homes.

“As the sun drops behind the horizon the haze that dusts the mountains disappears, and thanks to an almost complete lack of street lighting in most of the older suburbs, as well as its position sheltered by the valley, the town is lit almost entirely by the moon,” Blachford writes in Midnight Modern. “Contrary to the warm purple skies seen elsewhere in the world, the view to the west yields a deep blue sky, set atop the San Jacinto mountains.”

Tom Blachford, “Kaufmann Desert House, Richard Neutra, 1946” (courtesy the artist)

There’s a voyeuristic tension to the images as the photographer’s gaze rests on pools with their glassy surfaces in backyards, or the dark façades of homes with just one illuminated window. In fact, he did start as an outsider on these sleeping streets, making his connection with the Palm Springs Modern Committee when one of their founding members, Chris Menrad, was alerted to an image of his own home in Blachford’s exhibition in Australia. Rather than be creeped out, Menrad explains in a forward to Midnight Modern that he invited Blachford to come back to take more, even staging some of his vintage cars for the shoots.

“The clear air produces evenings that are full of stars and during the full moon everything is bathed in ethereal light,” Menrad writes. “A lack of streetlights in most neighborhoods allows residents to view the celestial show unimpeded by the light pollution that is prevalent in most other towns.” And for a place celebrated for its sunshine, that night light encourages a fresh perspective on the clean lines and muted colors of the Palm Springs modernist architecture.

Tom Blachford, “Kaufmann Desert House, Richard Neutra, 1946” (courtesy the artist)
Tom Blachford, “Palmer & Krisel, 1959” (courtesy the artist)
Tom Blachford, “Edris House, E. Stewart Williams, 1954” (courtesy the artist)
Tom Blachford, “Edris House, E. Stewart Williams, 1954” (courtesy the artist)
Tom Blachford, “Architect unknown, 1967” (courtesy the artist)
Tom Blachford, “Charles DuBois, 1963, 1962 Ford Futura” (courtesy the artist)
Tom Blachford, “Frank Sinatra Twin Palms Estate E. Stewart Williams, 1947” (courtesy the artist)
Tom Blachford, “Frey House II, Albert Frey, 1963” (courtesy the artist)
Tom Blachford, “Ship of the Desert Wilson & Webster, 1936” (courtesy the artist)

Midnight Modern: Palm Springs Under the Full Moon by Tom Blachford is out from Powerhouse Books.

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