Flamboyant portraits of Palm Springs and its residents

Flamboyant portraits of Palm Springs and its residents

Photographer Nancy Baron captures the unique camp and glamour of a "desert paradise" filled largely with transplants chasing the American Dream.

Set amid the Sonoran Desert, against the lyrical backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountain, the city of Palm Springs occupies ancient lands of the Cahuilla people, who enjoyed the region’s fertile mix of hot springs and dry heat.

At the turn of the 20th century, the wealthy elite began descending on the region for extended periods of time, taking advantage of its idyllic microclimate to address a vast array of health conditions at fashionable sanitariums and resorts.

By the 1930s, Hollywood powerbrokers and celebrities added a splash of glamour and intrigue with a decidedly bohemian lifestyle and aesthetic. They commissioned innovative architects like Richard Neutra, Donald Wexler and Albert Frey to create luxurious vacation homes in a wholly new style: “Desert Modern.”

With its signature blend of cutting-edge technology, open-plan design, large windows, wall-to-wall carpeting and swimming pools, Palm Springs became the standard-bearer of the mid-century American Dream, inspiring countless real estate developers to incorporate these elements into more affordable suburban designs.

Over the past century, Palm Springs has become synonymous with a distinctly American sensibility that combines pomp, spectacle, and kitsch into camp sophistication. But, as photographer Nancy Baron reveals, there’s more to the town than meets the eye at first glance.

Top to bottom: 'The Pucci Chairs and All the Rest' – Nancy Baron, 2015 'Piazza de Liberace' – Nancy Baron, 2010

In the new exhibition, The Good Life, on view at PDNB Gallery in Dallas, Baron takes us behind the sparkling façades of her adopted hometown. As an outsider turned insider, Baron connected with neighbours and local residents, who are as fabulous and flamboyant as their homes to create a magical portrait of Palm Springs.

“My first trip to Palm Springs was in the dead of a horrendous Chicago winter sometime in the mid-70’s,” Baron remembers. “Unfortunately, I don’t know which resort I was staying at, but I’ll never forget lying poolside, bathing in the warm sun while having a view of the snow on the mountains. It wasn’t a long stay, but it made a lasting impression. This was paradise.”

After moving to Los Angeles in 1981, Baron and her family began weekending in Palm Springs. In 2005, they bought a small, mid-century house designed by Donald Wexler for the Alexander Company and never looked back.

“Living in this desert paradise changed everything about how I saw Palm Springs,” says Baron, who quickly connected with community of modernists working to preserve the city’s legacy of mid-century modern architecture, automobile and industrial design.

'The Lush Vegetation' – Nancy Baron, 2013

Residents joyously opened their doors to Baron and her camera, allowing her inside their enchanting homes to document their equally charming lives. Feeling sense of kinship among people who shared her passion, Baron most enjoys hearing people’s stories and learning home they came to live in a community consisting largely of transplants.

“I began to see that Palm Springs was a small American town developed largely after World War II in a time of hope yet rooted in European design sensibility, which gives it a timeless appeal,” Baron says. “Through good times and bad, Palm Springs continues to reinvent itself and stay relevant while remaining rooted in its storied past.”

Nancy Baron: The Good Life is on view though August 19 2023, at PDNB Gallery in Dallas, Texas.

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