“Modernist Couple Behind Glass” by James Schnepf.

More than 200 people attended the opening of a remarkable exhibition of photography on Friday, Feb. 10, at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Center. The photos feature some of the finest examples of 20th-century architecture, lifestyle, abstracts and designs.

The Modernists: The Influence of Midcentury Modern Design on Photography brings together acclaimed local photographers and two Australian photographers, and will be on display through Friday, April 28.

“It is a stunning representation of both modern architecture and the talent of artists,” said Robert Webster, of MidMod Facade, who attended the opening. “As artists and collectors ourselves, my wife and I loved the visual texture that the artists presented in the show.”

The photos celebrate the unique aspects of the powerful architectural heritage of Palm Springs and the rest of the Coachella Valley, where celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, the Marx Brothers, Hoagy Carmichael and Gerald and Betty Ford owned homes. The photos show midcentury houses and other buildings designed by renowned architects including William Krisel, E. Stewart Williams, Hugh Kaptur, William F. Cody, A. Quincy Jones, Wallace Neff, and Edward Durell Stone.

The environment in and around the desert inspired design signatures such as V-shaped butterfly roofs and the brise-soleil.

“The designs needed to protect the houses from the harsh sun, with a large overhang … and long, linear roofs,” says Jim Riche, the exhibition organizer.

His love of modernism began 12 years ago as he photographed the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

“The lightbulb moment came when I started shooting its unusual shapes, and walls that fly up like wings,” Riche says. “I then began shooting abstract architecture in Los Angeles, turning my camera to midcentury when my wife and I bought a home in Rancho Mirage.”

His work has been in numerous shows and exhibitions, winning awards and being featured in numerous publications including Palm Springs Life, BLUR Magazine and Dodho. He produced a book of his work, Mod Mirage, for which his wife, Melissa, wrote the text.

He describes the architecture of the period as modern design rooted in functionality, clean lines and simplicity, which reflected the worldview at that time.

“Homes were more linear, and the furniture design mirrored the environment,” Riche said. “It has open spaces, clean lines and a symmetry of shapes that inspired me to use the elements as a design tool through photography. I captured the whole scene of the desert’s blue skies against the light colored homes, green palm trees, mountains, its pristine air (and) its bright environment.”

For James Schnepf, the simplicity of the architecture from the midcentury modern era resonates, because it reflects a simpler world.

The exhibition features photos of A. Quincy Jones-designed Sunnylands, owned by diplomat and philanthropist Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore. The property has hosted British royalty, political leaders, seven U.S. presidents and famous entertainers, leading the estate to be nicknamed the “Camp David of the West.”

The exhibition also features portraits of local architects William Krisel and Donald Wexler, and photos by Riche of the TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, which was designed by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1962.

The other photographers celebrating modernism include Nancy Baron, who puts animals into the midcentury environment; and James Schnepf, who includes portraits. For Schnepf, the simplicity of the architecture from the midcentury modern era resonates, because it reflects a simpler world. He said the desert is quite different from the Midwest, where he grew up.

“I landed on another planet upon arrival,” Schnepf said. “When I first arrived, I photographed the landscape, the architecture and then portraits of the passionate people who live here.”

He describes the desert through his photographs as “living with beautiful mountains, palm trees and blue skies—it improves one’s quality of life. Having been raised in Wisconsin, the desert vibe is a welcome change.”

The Modernists: The Influence of Midcentury Modern Design on Photography will be on display through Friday, April 28, at UCR-Palm Desert Center, 75080 Frank Sinatra Drive, in Palm Desert. The exhibit may be viewed weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.jimriche.com/the-modernists.

Cat Makino

Catherine Makino is a multimedia journalist who was based in Tokyo for 22 years. She wrote for media sources including Thomson Reuters, the San Francisco Chronicle, Inter Press Service, the Los Angeles...