The Los Angeles-based photographer Gray Malin recently revealed his latest book Gray Malin: The Essential Collection. Images inside, from his early career and through the past decade, encourage us to dream, to map out our next adventure, and to cherish both our natural reality and the colorfully imagined world.
Alongside its debut was a virtual book tour hosted on Zoom, first featuring a discussion with the author and activist Katherine Schwarzenegger. Here, the best-selling photographer verbally walked his attendees through the first chapters of his book, centered around his start in photography and his very first series “Timeless Pursuit.” Emphasizing elements like storytelling, authenticity, and time- and space-traveling through photos, Malin reviewed the colorful chronicles found within his Essential Collection.
Whitewall spoke with Malin in celebration of his book’s launch about preserving adventure through photography, the importance of an artist statement, and where he aims to explore next.
WHITEWALL: During your book tour, we learned your leap of faith in photography was after landing a job at a movie studio. You saw your colleagues passionate about film, yet realized you were passionate about still photography instead. How did that evolve from you taking a class in fine art photography to going off on your own in 2008 to sell prints at a flea market?
GRAY MALIN: Taking photography classes in fine art photography was a step to better my craft and understanding for how to continue to create work that was inspiring, interesting and ultimately would catch potential clients’ eyes. I wanted to learn from mentors and really get into the business of fine art photography to understand how I was going to make a career out of it.
What was interesting, however, is that I ended up completely shifting my idea of what it meant to be successful as a fine art photographer. Instead of aiming for exclusive galleries, I decided to go a less traditional route and make my work accessible and inclusive. The first step here was to sell directly to the people and the flea market seemed like a great way to get to know the people who would eventually be buying my work.
WW: You mentioned your experience allowed you to talk to people and hear what they wanted to hang in their homes. What was that then? How has that demand changed in the past decade?
GM: I learned that people were looking for artwork that was conversational, joyful, and most importantly, complemented the decor of a room nicely. I have expanded on this over the past decade as the demand has grown. We have coffee table books, decorative trays, candles, pillows, and even an entire kid’s furnishings line—all inspired by my photography and how it complements the decor of a home.
WW: “Timeless Pursuit,” your first official series, features a woman wearing a vintage Oscar de la Renta dress, walking through the streets of Los Angeles, New York, and Paris. How did this body of work help you find your voice?
GM: This series allowed me to understand how to create a cohesive body of work, rather than pictures tied together that did not necessarily have a storyline, this was the first series in which the series was connected through thematic significance and by having a consistent subject and aesthetic throughout the photographs I was able to tell a strong narrative.
This series helped me to realize that I liked telling stories and creating an entire world within my photographs, whether they be whimsical and juxtaposing or nostalgic and vintage, this idea of creating cohesive bodies of work stuck with me and inspired many of my series to follow. It also really helped me understand the importance of having an artist statement for each of my series moving forward.
WW: The following series was centered around a family trip to Marfa, Texas—where Elgreen & Dragset’s installation Prada Marfa was new—and photographing two ranchers at sunrise. How did this inspire you to want to transport people to the surreal, or believe in real things that seemed unreal?
GM: When I first visited the Prada Marfa exhibit, I was completely struck and inspired by the genius of it. An art installation in the middle of nowhere, and for it to be a Prada store nonetheless, was such a cool idea to me. I loved that it almost seemed photoshopped since it was so out of place.
This inspired me to create a series that imagined if this store was a functioning Prada store. Who would be shopping here? Would there be cowboys that parked their horses out front? It was so playful and fun to think up these scenarios and use the help of the local township to make my vision come true.
WW: A few years later in 2011, now a decade ago, you went to Art Basel in Miami for inspiration and met a Bolivian artist who invited you to come to his country and shoot on the largest salt flats in the world. What was this like?
GM: Believe it or not, Bolivia is home to the largest salt flat in the world that is 4,000 square miles, 12,000 feet high. The color temperature reaches 10,000 kelvins making objects appear brighter than normal—just like how photographers use a flash when shooting fashion to make everything smoother. Gaston really pushed me to think outside the box and I brought a lot of props from beach balls to neon kraft paper with me in my suitcase. I wanted to create a series that juxtaposed unexpected shapes, objects, and even animals in a whimsical environment that felt surreal.
WW: How did this environment push you to use props, and dream outside of the box?
GM: Due to the fact that the landscape is so vast and the colors are so saturated, I was inspired by color theory and wanted to use many different props that created a sense of surrealism which the viewer inherently creates a story out of. I thought, what are some fun, kitschy items that could amp up the whimsy of each image? Items like a diving board, umbrellas, balloons and colorful paper made my vision possible!
WW: One of the images you captured here is the cover of your book—two llamas dressed in black and white balloons that matched their fur. What is the importance of this image to you and your creative voice?
GM: This image happened after I was shooting several black balloons out on the cracked salt landscape and we loaded them into a truck and drove to meet two llamas from a nearby farm. This image has become one of the most popular and well-known images of my career. It definitely symbolizes a lot of what I try to accomplish with my work, there is a whimsical element, it is chic and elevated, the colors pop, and it creates a conversation of whether it is photoshopped or not given that it is so unexpected.
WW: Since, you’ve traveled all around the world, playing with color, imagination, and reality with photo tricks and props to engage an audience—even using vegetable dye on Australian sheep to foster a message of bold individuality, authenticity, and self-love. How did this come about?
GM: Near the beginning of my career, I read a story online about a Scottish sheep farmer who had colored the fleece of his flock in an effort to deter thieves who had been regularly stealing his sheep at night. The surreal visual of bright red sheep grazing green pastures ignited a vision that danced in my mind until I was actually able to shoot the project.
I worked with a team of Australian sheep farmers to craft and apply a non-toxic, vegetable-based dye with the same tools used to administer spray for regular maintenance, so I could rest assured that no animals were harmed in the process. Following around the different colored sheep, I captured beautiful moments that turned into a larger message about following your dreams and not being afraid to be your true self, the images from which turned into my “DREAM” series.
WW: How would you describe this ten-year chapter of your creativity?
GM: I am tremendously proud to be releasing this book while I am still so young. I definitely have a lot of creativity ahead of me in terms of both photography and business ventures, but it has been wonderful to reflect on what I’ve accomplished. I would describe this chapter of creativity as exploratory, colorful, inspiring, sunny and quirky.
WW: What will the next ten look like?
GM: I think the next ten years of my career will serve as a time to really lean into my love for design and weaving this into my photography projects, as well as photographing the places I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting!
WW: What is the importance of storytelling in your work today?
GM: Storytelling is always an important part of my work. With my more whimsical work and my vintage projects, I always have a goal—whether it be to evoke feelings of nostalgia and create moments that pay tribute to a jetset lifestyle or to create a project that starts a conversation about the subject and context, there is always an overarching idea behind my more crafted images. I love when the audience can also interpret the images however they’d like, and how everyone gets something different from my images.
WW: How has becoming a father shaped your creative eye?
GM: Becoming a father has shaped more of my product offerings than my creative eye. I’ve naturally gained more interest in family focused products since I’ve become a father, and since released two kids books, a stroller collaboration with Bugaboo, a baby album and prop set, and a kids furniture line with Cloth & Company.
WW: How did the pandemic impact your view of your work?
GM: The pandemic and the lockdown has shown me how important my work is in a time when we could not travel. Due to the fact that most of my images create serious wanderlust and depict images of the world’s most beautiful destinations, a lot of people expressed how grateful they were to have my work to inspire them and fill the walls while they were stuck at home. The escapism and joyfulness that my work provides can always be a source of happiness.
WW: You’ve traveled to seven continents, photographing the world and its beauty. Is there something you haven’t shot yet that you’d like to?
GM: I’d love to shoot some of the beautiful beaches in Mexico and some of the incredible desertscapes in places such as Morocco. I’ve also had a lot of fun shooting incredible locations around the U.S. over the past couple of years and I think there are so many amazing places to discover here, so I’m excited to explore these more, as well!
WW: You believe photographs preserve journeys. What types of personal journeys are your photographs preserving now?
GM: My photography is special to me because it not only showcases my hard work, but it also chronicles my travels and some of the most incredible and unforgettable experiences of my life. With every beach aerial image, there is a story behind it, every picture in Antarctica, I could tell you many behind-the-scenes anecdotes—these images are not only my artwork, but they are my life!