Setting out for California, Melbourne photographer Kate Ballis wanted to capture a new side of this place she'd visited so many times before. To find something unexpected in the landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park and the midcentury resorts of Palm Spring that had become so familiar to her. So she turned to colour infrared photography, a technique that was once dying out as infrared film stocks dwindled but has been given new life through digital cameras.
Kate's images are dreamlike, and yet, somewhat eerie. As though captured in some alien landscape where the sky has turned a sour pink and water a deep, blood red. The effect on plant life is perhaps most striking. Trees, grasses, and plants reflect infrared light much like the snow bounces visible light—and the colour they're rendered gives the human eye a glimpse into their health.
Ahead of Infra Realism's launch in Melbourne on October 5, VICE talked to Kate about how she came up with the idea to shoot in infrared, mixing science and art, and where to next.
VICE: Shot in infrared, these landscapes look incredible. How did you come up with the idea?
Kate Ballis: I have been inspired by infrared photography since I saw Richard Mosse's show at the Venice Biennale in 2013. His work was filmed and photographed on traditional infrared film. There's very low stock of infrared film left in the world, and I'm used to the process of shooting digitally—especially when travelling—so a converted infrared camera sounded like the perfect tool for my trip to Palm Springs in February.
What feeling were you trying to capture in this series? The images feel almost… eery.
I guess I started out wanting to create the feeling of another world by showing a spectrum of light that is otherwise invisible to the human eye, but I was even a little fearful of the bold colours that the foliage goes when photographed using an infrared camera and filters. But as I was playing around with filters and techniques, I developed something that to me was so distinctly 80s California that the series quickly fell into place, and the colour scheme began to dictate subject matter.
Does infrared photography always look this 80s or did you set out to craft this distinctive look?
Traditional infrared film made foliage look pink or white. You can now use lots of different filters to make the plants different colours, dependent on different white balances. Each responds to the infrared spectrum differently.
You mentioned that plants give off really bold colours under infrared photography. What's happening there, what are we seeing?
It depends on the infrared filter. The healthier the plant, the more colour it gives off. It's so interesting seeing super healthy plants in the middle of Palm Springs, which is a desert and can reach 50 degrees celsius.
I think when you look at your images, they are so distinctly California—even with the distorted colours. Is that one of the things that drew you to shooting there?
Palm Springs is pretty much a second home. I've been there eight times in the last four years, and am heading back in a few weeks. I actually ordered the camera directly to my friend's house in Palm Springs, so hadn't played around with it until I got there. All I knew is that I wanted it as a tool to show California, and especially Palm Springs, in a new light. However, when I created this colour scheme I couldn't get over how it seems so iconically 80s California, and so perfectly fitting for poolside Palm Springs. The fact that the colour scheme is so familiar it can almost be used as a code to interpret what would otherwise be a distorted and challenging landscape.
Do you think you'll keep shooting in this style, or are you keen to try something completely different?
I have continued shooting in this style across the Atacama Desert in Chile, and also Bolivia. I'm shooting in Palm Springs and some other US National Parks later this month, which will all come together in a book to be released next year! Next year I want to explore England and Greece—my heritage—so we'll see how those landscapes respond to infrared. I'm all about storytelling, I like to find a photographic or artistic style that best fits the story. So who knows what will come next!