Though he’s now one of Melbourne’s most exciting young photographers, Tom Blachford went through school not feeling particularly creative, nor having any inclination of what he might have wanted to create.
He started studying marketing at RMIT, but found it unfulfilling, and admits he was a pretty bad student. Things all changed when he got a DSLR camera for his 20th birthday. From the first moment picking it up, Tom just knew it felt right, and fell completely in love with the photographic process, particularly shooting at night. ‘I realised the camera was a bridge to a world just beyond my perceptions that most people never get to glimpse,’ as he tells it.
Waving goodbye to that marketing degree, Tom persisted through ‘many years of truly terrible photos’. He worked for five years as a part-time assistant for other photographers including James Geer, before leaving the ‘safety net’ to concentrate fully on his own work. Today, he has carved out a career specialising in interiors and architecture photography, for the likes of DKO, Techne Architects, FIGR, Elenberg Fraser, Foolscap, Studio Esteta. and more, as well as shooting aerial photography and his fine art work. Much of the latter, especially his Midnight Modern Series (published in a monograph by Powerhouse 2017), and more recent Nihon Noir have gained global acclaim, and been published by top international outlets.
We recently caught up with Tom to talk timewarps and dream-come-true moments, plus his forthcoming debut solo show in New York!
Was there a particular moment that inspired your long-running Midnight Modern Series, and what keeps drawing you back to Palm Springs?
On our first visit to Palm Springs in 2013, I vividly remember a moment standing outside an unbelievable asymmetrical butterfly mid-century home in the Twin Palms neighbourhood, as the sun was just about to set behind the mountain. There were only vintage cars on the street and perfectly restored houses from 1957. I had this inexplicable feeling I had fallen through a time warp back to another era. It was the confusion of knowing where I was but not when I was. The Midnight Modern Series has been about translating that feeling into my work. Shooting by moonlight adds an extra layer of mystery, that for many viewers it is hard for them to tell if the images are taken by day or at night, in 1957 or 2017.
The generosity and passion of the homeowners and community is what has really kept the series moving forward. By chance, I was contacted by the owner of that house, which I had been in front of on that very first day, and just over a year later, I was invited back to stay and even hold an exhibition there. That’s one of a now almost endless list of dream-come-true moments that have happened over the course of shooting the series.
On a more practical level, Palm Springs has a very unique set of attributes that have really made it the only place this particular series can exist: a huge stock of perfectly restored mid-century homes, an epic mountain backdrop, a desert climate with very few clouds to block the moon and, most bizarrely, no street lamps in the old suburbs to pollute the scene with light!
You have a penchant for shooting at night. What’s the most challenging aspect of this, and how do you work around it?
It’s hard to nail down a particularly difficult element, the whole exercise has been an incredibly challenging, grueling process and one that has required a lot of thought, research, and trial and error to get to a point where I could make the most of each night. I would normally shoot from 7pm-4am for five nights in a row (two nights either side of full moon) and spend the days scouting and arranging access and cars with the homeowners. I really pushed my mind, stamina and equipment to the limits!
For all my work, exposed light sources (any street lights or landscape lighting) become the enemy if I can’t tame them by moving, covering them or cropping them. There have been many times, I’ve wished I could have had a magic wand (or airgun!) to shoot out a single light bulb that was ruining a whole shot!
What I enjoy most about the aesthetic is to be able to show people the world that my camera allows me access to, a world of rich colours, contrasts and detail that are usually hidden just beyond our senses behind a veil of darkness. I’ve been able to show people places they thought they knew in a completely different way which has been amazing.
A yet-to-be-released series shot in Bolivia last year is also centred around architecture. Have you always been fascinated with architecture, and why do you think architecture lends itself to captivating art imagery?
I can’t actually draw or paint, so I began to be interested in architecture when I realised that I could combine the lines and geometries with my camera and selective composition to create graphic imagery – something I was really drawn to but wasn’t sure how to bring to life in any other way. I began to start re-interpreting the built environment to suit my own frame, and loved what I could create out of abstracting what was around me.
With Midnight Modern and my newer series, that evolved into a fascination with buildings as the sets for narratives, both real and imagined. I’m obsessed with the infinite number of stories that buildings play host to, as well as those that are projected on them by people who walk or drive by and wonder what goes on behind their walls. In a way they become sculptural and literal manifestations of the feeling of being an insider or an outsider.
You’ve hinted at a releasing a ‘Post Modern 3D Project’ next year. In addition to being visually engaging, you want the experience to “ask questions about what is real, what is good taste and what are our responsibilities to architectural preservation”. Why are bringing these topics to the forefront important to you, especially at this time?
The project is about creating alternate design backstories for the most famous Modernist houses of all time. I’m imagining what it would have looked like if post-modernism found its way into the most staunchly modernist buildings. The line between renders and photography is completely gone, the average person is now completely unable to tell the difference between the two. Instead of fighting this I’m interested in exploring it and magnifying it.
After becoming deeply connected to the modernism community, I realised the extent to which great buildings had been destroyed just as they were beginning to be appreciated. Whilst I can’t bring all of them back from the rubble, I am interested in trying to do what I can for architectural preservation and highlighting the choice that we have: to love and fight for something we don’t understand and that is no longer fashionable or start afresh to repeat the cycle in the name of progress. I can see both sides of the debate, but I think it’s most interesting to explore the predicament.
In a way, Midnight Modern was a very ‘modernist’ project in its minimalism and serious dedication to the purist forms of the era, and the restrictions I placed upon myself. This new project is an opportunity for me to take the ‘less is a bore’ not ‘less is more’ approach, and to really go wild and inject some humour and subversion into the series. I’m actually a very sarcastic and humour-driven person, but it was hard to convey that in my other work which has been quite serious.
You’ve also described this project as ‘A mash-up of the worlds of fake news, McMansion Hell and Memphis Milano.’ What are you getting at when you say McMansion Hell?
McMansion hell is a great blog that humorously as well as academically tears to pieces some of the monstrosities of modern construction, in the age of ‘bigger is better’ – completely inflexible and compromised design.
I’m interested in the perspective of the homeowners and their mindset to build exactly as they want things and to compete with each other as well as their tendency to completely mash-up and misuse classical elements. In a way, I admire their single-mindedness and dedication to function over form, in another sense, I abhor them for the blandness it has created. My new 3D series is going to feature written components that delve into the character and motivations of the owners who have chosen to forsake modernism in favour of post-modernism, inspired by my experiences in the real world shooting for architects and designers.
Can you give us any insight into your creative process – how do you find inspiration and then what steps do you take in turning that into an exhibit-able body of work?
My series are usually trying to connect the architecture of a place with a feeling… and adding in a sense of mystery. As such, my process has been to plan less and just get on the ground and start shooting and try to connect with my impulses for what I’m drawn to. From there, I try to tweak my approach to translate my feeling of what the nights in that place feel like to me. For Palm Springs it was about glamour and hedonism, for LA about paranoia and tension, and for Tokyo it was about the feeling of being in a futuristic parallel universe.
My new 3D series is a whole new process, which I’m still navigating! It’s far more about ideation, design and refinement, which is both exciting and challenging.
Tapping into some paranoia and tension, If you’ve got to desert your studio right this minute, and can only bring along one item, what do you grab and why?
Yikes, hard to pick one… but I guess my 45mm Tilt Shift Lens. This is what I have shot 99% of my fine art work on. For me, no other lens gives a more interesting and flexible perspective on architecture (providing I can get back far enough!).
Your partner Kate Ballis is also an accomplished photographic artist/photographer that we have featured on TDF. Do you guys talk photography much? And how do you think you have influenced one another’s work?
I spend pretty much every waking hour thinking about something to do with photography and can’t help myself talking shop at any and all hours of the day. Though we don’t often shoot at the same time (commercially or in our projects) we still work very collaboratively, and try to help each other tease out ideas and aesthetics. We rarely release anything without seeking each others opinion and expertise first.
Kate has an incredible work ethic and a laser-like focus that really inspired me to work through any big ideas that I have had and stay committed to seeing them through. There is no way I could have attempted anything like Midnight Modern without her support.
Is traveling the world as a photographer as amazing as you guys, and your projects, make it look?
We are extremely fortunate to have been able to build a life that gives us the flexibility and incentive to travel and shoot new places.
Sometimes we do just look forward to being home with our dog and family and friends but in general, we feel very lucky and love what we do. We work really hard on location, so it’s not all champagne and rainbows but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
What’s next for Tom Blachford?
My first New York solo show is coming up in October so I’m very much looking forward to that. I’m also hoping to get back to Bolivia later in the year to continue my yet-to-be named series on the post-Andean architecture of El Alto and, in between, find time to design and plan my 3D Post Modern Project with my collaborator Mr P Studio.