Tom Blachford: Modernism by Moonlight

When the full moon glows in Palm Springs, photographer Tom Blachford gets to work. He slips between the neighbourhoods at the witching hour, lights off, streets empty. Standing in the stillness, Blachford clicks his camera and waits for the exposure to develop: one minute, two minutes, three… Palm Springs’ iconic architecture – a source of inspiration for Cutler and Gross’s latest collection – is lensed by moonlight.

The Californian hideaway has been famed for its astonishing structures since the 1930s, when architects Richard Neutra, Albert Frey and a collection of visionaries created a new design language: Desert Modernism. The geometric, champagne-stocked properties provided luminaries like Frank Sinatra with a hideaway from Hollywood; this period of decadence was immortalised by Slim Aarons and Julius Shulman’s iconography. Melbourne-based lensman Tom Blachford added a new layer to the narrative and the results are extraordinary.

Lit solely by the moon, Blachford’s six-part photographic series ‘Midnight Modern’ lends a surreal, cinematic element to the architecture that acts like a time portal. Is it 1960 or 2060? Is it night or day? This ambiguity is both unsettling and intriguing. Through his nocturnal shots, Blachford provides the viewer with a new perspective on some of the world’s most exclusive, iconic properties. And gaining access to them has been a whirlwind adventure for Blachford, involving slipping past security and scrambling down mountains in the dead of night.

Speaking from Australia, Blachford shared with Cutler and Gross his methodology and discussed the magic of Palm Springs.

Swimclub, Midnight Modern series VI.

It really took me by surprise. I had no idea I could be creative; I studied Business and hated every second. When I was 20, I got a camera for my birthday and it changed my life, I have never wanted to do anything else since. For over 10 years now, my wife [lawyer-turned-photographer Kate Ballis] and I have been on an ‘artistic’ journey together.

On how Midnight Modern started

Palm Springs was on mine and my wife’s radar from Coachella and the work of Slim Aarons. We went there for three days on the back of a trip to Mexico and it blew our minds. I wanted to find my own voice and style so I decided to shoot the houses at night. It happened to be a full moon and I managed to get two or three shots that really worked. We went back to Australia and the pictures just haunted me for months and months, so we decided to go back.

In 2014 I had my first ‘Midnight Modern’ exhibition and the response was amazing. So, I hopped on a plane and embarked on what has now become one of many crazy trips.

Abrigo Corner, Midnight Modern series IV.
"Frank Sinatra had a giant flagpole with  Jack Daniel's flag that you could see from the old part of time" - Tom Blachford
On the process...

During the first two trips I didn’t know anyone, didn’t know where to start, and didn’t have anything to show for myself. It was a very adrenaline-fuelled, anxious time spent sneaking around taking photos and trying not to get caught.

Since then, I’ve been really accepted into the community and things have changed. Nowadays I’ll fly over and spend the first 36 hours (maybe squeezing in 4 hours of sleep) driving around the houses dropping a calling card through the letterbox saying who I am and what I do. Then my phone will start blowing up. I’ll stay up all night and get calls during the day, it’s wild.

Sheats Goldstein Pool View, Midnight Modern series IV.

It involves a combination of frantic hurrying to squeeze in the shots, and a lot of patience as each exposure takes two or three minutes. To achieve the illuminated brake lights, the car owner lies down in the front seat and when I yell “action” they tap the brake as fast as they can and then stay lying down with a weird neck for the rest of the exposure. Then I wrap up quickly and rush to the next house.

I’ll do whatever needs to be done. I will fly across the world at my own expense, drive to the desert, and stay up all night to get the perfect shot.

On the Kaufmann House...

In the early series, I had a list of ‘starchitect’ houses that I wanted to shoot one way or another and the Kaufmann House [designed by Richard Neutra] was right up there. It was so hard to access – the then-owner hadn’t let anyone in for 15 years – I basically had to beg. Eventually, he said to me, “I don’t respect your methods, but I’ll allow it”.

It was a crazy night when we shot it. We’d tried to sneak into the Frey House II, got kicked out by security and had to run down the mountain, and then got this email from the owner of the Kaufmann House that ended with, “be outside at 7.29pm and access may be granted”. So, we ran over there and this handsome dude on a Triumph motorcycle turns up and says, “I don’t know what you said or who you are, but you’ve got an hour” – he was Brad Dunning, Tom Ford’s interior designer.

The Kaufmann House is so iconic thanks to [Julius] Shulman and Slim Aarons’s images, so I took their perspectives and went off exploring. I ended up taking an angle that neither of them had really shot. Once I photographed the Kaufmann House, everyone else knew I meant business.

Kaufmann’s Mistress, Midnight Modern series VI.
On things not going to plan...

Palms Springs is meant to have 300 cloudless days a year but, I don’t know what happened, there were a series of trips between 2017 and 2019 when I was getting really shafted. I’d gone all that way, managed to access the house, the car…so I’d wait it out for 2 or 3 hours and sometimes it’d clear, sometimes it wouldn’t. I’d shoot it anyway, but those images are really disappointing to me.

There was a period when I wanted to do the ‘Hollywood wet-down’ so I’d hose the road. But Palm Springs is in the middle of the desert – it’s like 50 degrees, the roads are thirsty – so that was an endless task of hosing the tarmac but making sure to not splash the cars. It was a nightmare.

"I will fly across the world at my own expense, drive to the desert, and stay up all night to get the perfect shot." - Tom Blachford

In most of my images, there are star trails – an artefact of the long shutter speed. In series III, I was curious to see the effect it’d have if I froze them, but those images aren’t as good. To me, the star trails reflect that these mountains, these houses that look so bolted down, are actually spinning on a rock that’s moving at 400,000 kph. So, I went back to the trails and haven’t regretted it.

Kaufmann House, Midnight Modern series II.

There was a point when I was going every 3 months, which was so wonderful and wild. I’ve been to Palm Springs 14 times in 10 years. My wife and I actually got married there; it was so special because we were able to have our Palm Springs family there and show our Australian family and friends this world that we’ve been sucked into. I hope we get to go back to do more series, but at the moment I can’t quite get my head around the logistics of travelling with our two young boys just yet.

One of the first Modernist celebrity houses in Palm Springs was Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms residence, which I shot in series III. A local told me that Sinatra used to fly his plane in and land it on the road opposite. He had a giant flagpole with a Jack Daniel’s flag that you could see from the old part of town; if the flag was at full mast everyone knew that Frank was in town and hosting a party.

I’ve heard so many stories from every generation and met the most amazing people. With every trip, I’ve learnt more about the moon, Modernism and Palm Springs and it’s been a blast.

On imposter syndrome...

My imposter syndrome was going hard when I first started the series. These houses have been around for over 70 years, the full moon comes out every month, how has no one else done this before? That was confusing to me.

It’s been a long and arduous process to fight the self-doubt, to fight the imposter syndrome having not studied art or photography. By process of deduction – when people started to buy my art to put on their walls – I had to learn that I am an artist. That was a big thing for me.

Black House, Midnight Modern series IV.
On the future....

I think it’s probably going to involve exploring AI further. I’m really interested in the technology, the authorship debate, and the potential of it. I’ve realised in the last few years that I have a pretty decent case of Aphantasia [the inability to create mental imagery] – I can’t picture anything when I close my eyes; if I tried to imagine a red apple, it’s just not there. So, AI really helps with that because it throws hundreds of images at you and you go with your instinct of what feels good, what feels different, and what feels new.

While I’m locked down with two little kids, being able to explore AI worlds and narratives in the comfort of my home is amazing, and it’s great for my artistic muscle to be flexed. Me saying that is probably going to piss a bunch of people off…

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