Palm Springs’ Midcentury Modernism Is Even Better In Infrared

Photographer Kate Ballis illuminates a cotton candy-colored world that’s invisible to the human eye.

The mid-century modern architecture of Palm Springs has been photographed so much it all starts to blend together after a while. But a new photo series shows the city’s famous desert homes as you’ve never seen them before: in infrared.

[Photo: Kate Ballis]

The Australian photographer Kate Ballis and frequent Palm Springs visitor was looking for a way to reinvigorate a landscape she was deeply familiar with. So while attending Modernism Week in February 2017, she began experimenting with infrared and was shocked to see how the desert’s cacti and succulents began to glow in a spectrum of light that’s invisible to the human eye. The infrared gave her a new lens with which to view the landscape–and even illuminated elements she hadn’t previously noticed.

“Healthy plants emit infrared light and take a certain color through the process, so I started viewing Palm Springs as a lush oasis, where succulents and palm trees thrived and synthetic grass can be identified through the viewfinder from 100 meters (328 feet) away,” Ballis tells Co.Design in an email.

Once she discovered the power of infrared, Ballis played around with filters before settling on the cotton-candy and magenta pink palette that permeates the series. She credits the over-the-top aesthetic to her upbringing in the 1980s–it expresses a surreal but aspirational vision of America that she dreamed of from her bedroom in Australia.

[Photo: Kate Ballis]

“I think I can’t escape the fact that I’m a child of the ’80s who was swept up in the hyper color dream that was marketed to us through pink Barbies driving blue mustangs, MTV, competitions to win a trip to Miami, and in general the vision of America depicted to us in Australia,” she writes. “Perhaps, in a way, this series is a way of finally attaining the dreamland we were sold in the ’80s.”

Some of the series’ most compelling photographs reveal the juxtaposition of the city’s famous architecture and the natural world. One aerial shot shows the palm trees exploding between the flat roofs of homes. Many of the images focus on the low-profile facades of midcentury homes, often with a classic car or golf cart parked in front to maintain the illusion of a world that’s just beyond our own. Ballis has a clear affinity for swimming pools, which appear as fire-engine red geometric shapes in infrared, a striking contrast to the cooler gray-green of the images’ plant life.

It’s hard not to read the photos in the context of what midcentury modernism has become: an oversaturated status symbol–that bears little resemblance to its original vision.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.