Uncanny Topographies

Uncanny Topographies

A testament to the interdisciplinary nature of photography, emerging practitioner Kate Ballis creates unique, colour-drenched images using infrared technology. Recording the modernist landscape and lush vegetation of Palm Springs, the series Infra Realism marks a departure from a previous career as a corporate lawyer, offering an otherworldly perspective.

A: Infra Realism focuses on isolated deserts and built environments, questioning how human presence offers new architectural forms, shapes and textures. What initially drew you to the topographies of Palm Springs?

KB: I was first drawn to Palm Springs after seeing Slim Aarons’ photos of the jet set crew enjoying cocktails by the pool in the middle of the desert. My first trip was in 2013 and it was love at first sight. The midcentury houses transported me to another time, and the mountainous backdrop gave a surreal setting like a painted Hollywood backdrop. The next time I went out to Joshua Tree National Park and I couldn’t believe how completely foreign the landscape felt. Palm Springs became my new muse and I’ve visited around eight times now. The light on the mountains will always move me.

 A: The series transforms everyday topographies into artificial, hyperreal depictions using infrared. What influences this unique practice?

KB: I adore surrealist art; Salvador Dali was my earliest favourite artist as a child. I also love Georgia O’Keefe. For a long time I’ve wanted to be able to paint so I can create absolutely foreign landscapes, and have found painting frustrating as it doesn’t come as naturally to me, plus I’ve had a very small proportion of practice hours in comparison.  I think via my frustration in art classes, I realised that I can distort reality via my photography rather than relying on painting, which was empowering and led me to this series.

A: Palm Springs is such an iconic place within visual culture. How does this series fit into the chronology of pre-existing images, and how does infrared technology offer a new visual perspective?

KB: Photography of Palm Springs initially focused on the people and landscapes; although the architecture was modern, it was part of a movement throughout the world, and needed the patina of time to make it such a fabulous subject. Palm Springs drew the celebrities from Hollywood, as it fell within the rule that they must be 2 hours from the studio at all times! There is wonderful photography focusing on the residents and wild parties in Palm Springs throughout time. Landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams also photographed the Coachella Valley. In more recent years, photographers have documented the incredible modernist architecture with the mesmerising background of the mountains.

I think my infrared photography – which highlights the spectrum of light emitted by plants – has put a focus on the immaculate landscaping of the gardens in Palm Springs. Mid-week it can be difficult to get park on a quiet street in Palm Springs as all the landscape gardening trucks are parked in front of the residences. I am intrigued by how abstract the succulents and palms look in a single colour.  To the human eye they are usually a variety of greens, browns and yellows that blend into the mountains and desert-toned houses, but through my art the block colour draws focus to the textures of the plants. It really brings the meticulous landscaping to the foreground, instead of blending into the desert tones of the midcentury homes.

A: Has your former role as a media and entertainment lawyer influenced the way you construct compositions and negotiate aesthetic values? Are there any similarities between your previous career and photography?

KB: In my former life as a media and entertainment lawyer I was fortunate enough to work on some extremely interesting art fraud cases! This involved meeting artists and collectors and looking for the compositional elements in authentic works that were utilised in the allegedly forged works. I spent hours upon hours looking at slight differences in colours and brush stroke and analysing artists’ oeuvres. It was also wonderful hearing art collectors, forensic art experts and artists themselves explaining their methodology and what makes their compositions so unique. I think I went into photography knowing that as an artist I had to create something original that was inspired by my own practice.

My previous career made me exercise my attention span and account for every minute spent as we had to bill in 6 minute blocks! So I can happily sit retouching for 12 hours straight, only taking a couple of short breaks. I’m also very on top of copyright, usage and licensing, so I re-read and sometimes modify contracts before signing.

A: Your work is exhibiting at the Affordable Art Fair, Hampstead. What is the importance of this event to emerging practitioners, and whose work are you especially drawn to?

KB: I think a great aspect of the Affordable Art Fair is the way they put extra effort into supporting galleries who are championing emerging artists as well as well bigger names, it’s so important to be given these platforms to exhibit your work when you’re starting out as an artist. The Hampstead fair will have the Made in Arts London exhibition, showcasing recent graduates’ work, so there’s a great variety of mediums on show. I’m looking forward to seeing Marco Pantaleoni’s images, he’s part of Made in Arts London and recently graduated from Central St Martin’s. He uses photography and live 3D-scanning techniques to re-define the idea of portraiture and he’ll be doing scans of people live at the fair, which will be really interesting!

A: Can you tell us about any future projects and whether you plan to experiment with other light-altering technologies?

KB: My next project is about exploring my heritage via mythology. My father was born in Crete and my mother was born in Somerset, England. I’m going to be using a variety of techniques including different styles of infra-red photography and explore other spectrums of light that are invisible to the human eye. I’ve got mountains of books to read and lots of camera testing ahead of me before I head off to Europe!

The Affordable Art Fair runs from 10-13 May. Find out more here.

1. From Infra Realism, courtesy Kate Ballis.