The imagery of Palm Springs is easy to conjure even if you’ve never been there. The name evokes sprawling golf courses and high walled estates where scarlets lounge beside kidney-shaped swimming pools; a place of Cadillacs and cocktails and white modernist villas; a true oasis amongst rocky hills and the barren Californian desert. Palm Springs seems so luxurious and fantastic that it’s hard to believe that it even exists, and I’ve always been curious to know what the city is really like, behind the touristic image and all the cinematic associations.
Nancy Baron’s series THE GOOD LIFE > Palm Springs documents the enigmatic resort town, both its archetypes and its surprises. A peek into Palm Springs through Nancy’s lens shows a city that seems locked in time: some of the patterns and prints might as well be from the 60s or 70s, and behind the gold gates of the blindingly white estates lies a world not so different to the one described by Joan Didion in The White Album. The photographs have just been bound together as a new monograph by Kehrer, a wonderful book which provides a personal glimpse into a distant and foreign world of glitzy glamour, leopard print wallpaper and Lynchian lawns.
Nancy lives in L.A., but as a part-residence of Palm Springs she often takes the 45 minute drive up into the mountains and escapes to the paradise of pampas grass and manicured modernism. We were as intrigued by Nancy’s photos as we are of the iconic and inscrutable city, so we decided to ask her a few questions. Here Nancy talks a little bit about the making of her project, and the ideas behind her snaps.
Why did you choose Palm Springs as the topic for a series?
Once I became a part-time resident of Palm Springs, I began to see it in a completely different light than I previously experienced. I have ten bodies of fine art documentary work. Each of them explores the exotic culture next door – the people, places, and things that are all around us, but are sometimes overlooked or misunderstood.
Palm Springs fit this criterion. It’s an iconic American resort town whose name conjures a defined idea internationally – but I quickly learned that there’s so much more than I realised to this small town with big city sophistication, including a rich history and a culture that’s visually exotic and hard to describe in words. I wanted to show what I see.
How did you decide on the locations?
People often ask me that and it’s hard to say, because it pretty much happens organically. I may be at a party or out for a walk, or driving somewhere, or someone might alert me to something as my friend, Lynda, did when she told me the Liberace Estate was open for a few days for an estate sale. The house was sold that weekend and has since been remodelled. Another time, at Thanksgiving dinner, I stepped outside to see my friend Bob’s recently restored ’53 Studebaker Champion Starliner (designed by Palm Springs resident, Raymond Loewy), which matched his vintage red checked jacket. I ran inside to get my camera just before the sun set. On a morning walk with guests, I found newspapers lying in front of the Richard Neutra-designed Kaufmann house in the warm morning light, giving an architectural treasure a personal touch.
Who are the people that you document, and how did you get to know them?
Apart for a few exceptions, they’re people I know, who are ambassadors, whether official or not, of Palm Springs Life. Everyone’s been incredibly supportive of me. Palm Springs was recently named the fourth friendliest city in the United States by an online real estate site – and they know what they’re talking about. When I moved into my home I only knew one couple there, who happened to live near me in L.A. They graciously introduced me to their PS friends and the circle hasn’t stopped growing.
"Palm Springs was recently named the fourth friendliest city in the United States by an online real estate site – and they know what they’re talking about."
You say that you found Palm-Springs to be both exactly and nothing like what you expected: what did you expect, and what ended up surprising you?
Before I was a homeowner there, I had only stayed in resorts and seen Palm Canyon, the main drag. It hadn’t occurred to me that just steps away from this, I would discover a place with a rich mid-century modernist design legacy and a world class art museum that was also a lovely vestige of americana, with holiday parades, fourth of July fireworks, and its own elite collegiate baseball team, the Palm Springs Power.
Why did you decide to call the project The Good Life?
I have a broad body of work for the series, but the pattern I began to see and to establish is that Palm Springs is a great example of “The American Dream” – as anyone can live a good life there, whether in a trailer or an architectural masterpiece. There are many lifestyle choices, truly offering something for everyone.
In the post WWII boom, George Alexander began building tract homes in Palm Springs, providing affordable housing, built with quality materials, that were designed by cutting-edge architects as part of a magical desert landscape. Add this to a booming economy and The Good Life was established.
Do you think Palm-Springs is misunderstood?
There’s a unique personality to this place that can only be understood by residents – whether full time or part time. Before I lived there, I didn’t think past my vision of lounging by the pool, with the occasional effort to play tennis. There are swimming pools, golf courses, tennis courts, representatives of faded Hollywood, retirees and a strong LGBT community, but there is also an International Film Festival, the renowned Palm Springs Photography Festival, the Donald Wexler-designed international airport, hiking trails, young Hollywood, hipsters, and families.
And then there’s something about the air. Driving from L.A., I step out of the car upon arrival, take a deep breath, and everything changes – in a good way.