During last year’s Modernism Week, photographer Kate Ballis realized she wanted to do something a bit different. The Aussie artist was used to photographing the wild desert terrain of California and light-filled modernist homes in Palm Springs, but it all started to feel a bit ordinary. She had been coming to the town for years and wanted to re-enchant the scenery a bit, to candy coat California with a sense of magical realism.
“The desert is so otherworldly,” she tells me. “I think it’s almost like how we perceive Mars to be.” She decided a change of perception was needed.
Ballis remembered how America was once portrayed to her as a child in her native Australia: an America of the ‘80s, where MTV sold us dreams of celebrity life and free trips to Miami, when pink plastic Barbie cars where all the rage: a sugary, saturated, pop culture dream. And this 1980s of her imagination suddenly came to life in Palm Springs, when she converted a digital Sony Camera for infrared, using a variety of colored filters to achieve the final aesthetic.
“It’s funny, I think my Infra Realism series is actually showing the modernist architecture from the ’50s -’70s in the light and style of the ’80s – but in another world. So it’s all a bit of a teleportation process,” she says.
Suddenly the 1950s muted, modernist architecture transformed into something else entirely. A lush, new desert world opened up right there behind the lens, where succulents vibrated with light and energy and each photograph seemed to layer space/time itself. By using infrared, Kate was able to focus on that which is hidden, yet inherent, in nature.
“I am fascinated with unseen energy,” she says. “[I wanted to] create work that catches a glimpse of a world that exists just outside human perception. Like a memory you can’t quite pinpoint.”
“I’m really interested in energy and how we can feel it, but it’s not so easy to see,” Kate says. “I love the fact that there are spectrums of light, such as infrared that cannot be seen by the human eye, but the process of photography can make them visible.”
Infra Realism straddles this divide between reality and the surreal, the often interloping dance between science and magic. Regular cameras only capture visible light, but infrared cameras detect unseen heat energy and convert it to a thermal image. And it’s exactly those unseen elements that were necessary to re-enchant Palm Springs for Kate: subverting the familiar into the unfamiliar.
“It has been fascinating to photograph a landscape that appears muted and dead, but realise that the shrubs and cactus are actually alive and well and in infrared glowing brighter than anything else in the scene. What appears to the eye as a dusty brown scene is actually a glowing world,” she says. “It’s a search for life and color in places where you would not expect it to exist.”
The modernist homes in Palm Springs tend to have muted exterior colors, often blending in with the surrounding landscape. By experimenting with colored filters and infrared technology, Kate was able to highlight the living, heat-producing organisms around the architecture, changing her perception of the familiar city. “After nine trips to Palm Springs I gained a particular appreciation for the time and skill that goes into maintaining the pristine succulent-filled gardens and palm-scapes of the city…the healthy plants took on an extremely different hue to the houses and were now center stage in the image,” she says.
“Perhaps, in a way this series is a way of finally attaining the dream-land we were sold in the ‘80s,” Kate says.
For more photos from Infra Realism, see below. For more “otherworldly” stories, check out this psychic designer’s tips on how to change your life through interior design.