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'I Shot Entirely From The Hip.' Michael Galinsky Interview: Malls Across America

Shortly after discovering he had a knack for photography in 1989, Michael Galinsky set out to hone his skills in renegade style. He traveled cross-country to capture images from one of the most derided aspects of western culture –– the American mall. Many years later, his images went viral. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, he's recently given revelers a chance to experience his journey with 'Malls Across America'.

Michael Galinsky self-portrait
Michael Galinsky self-portrait
Michael Galinksy
'Tape World' –– Malls Across America
Michael Galinksy

KTG: I've spent time in two of the malls you photographed: Washington Square, in Oregon (where I'm from) & Bellevue Square, in Washington. How did you choose which cities or states you would visit on that cross-country journey in 1989?

MG: This was a very pre-internet trip. We were 20 years old and had a few relatives, family friends, and college aquaintances to stay with on our journey. These stops determined our route. We couldn't look for malls online, we had to just kind of hit the road and see what we found. We had planned to hit Los Angeles and the Southwest but our car got broken into in San Francisco. After that we hightailed it down to St. Louis in one straight shot. My college roommate lived there so that gave us a goal. We were really pretty broke college students so we either slept on the side of the road, in the car, or with family friends. We only stayed in one crappy hotel in Missoula because it was only like $25 dollars, and it was filled with drunks.

Seeing stores and brands in your photos that may no longer exist feels both sad and charming. Like Tape World, for example; we will never experience a store like that now. Did you feel compelled to share these images in part because so much has changed since you captured them?

I always intended to make a book. However, before they went viral on the internet I had no way to make that happen. I was inspired by Robert Frank's the Americans to make the journey and by the way that William Eggleston capture subtle and mundane details in his color photos, to try to capture the sense of time and place. I used to think that images made more sense in 10 years, but I have come to realize through the response to this work that the time frame is more like 20-25.

It is such a moving book. My husband & I supported it on Kickstarter; we chose to have the Tape World photo as the back cover. We also chose the print of the older couple going down the escalator, which is so pretty; I love the colors and composition. I heard there was a special discovery about that photo?

Yes, there's a photo of an older couple, impecably dressed in casual outfits, going down an escalator. When the work went viral again last month it was showing up all over the place and that image was on the AOL homepage for a bit. A man named David came home from his father's memorial service and turned on his AOL mail where he saw it. It was an image of his father and mother.

Very touching. Was the process of putting together a photography book more difficult than you anticipated?

When the images first went viral I threw together a Kickstarter to capture the energy. I had priced out getting a book printed in China by a very good printer that does high end books. The cost with shipping would have been in the $10-15 a book rage- and I figured I could get the book printed and delivered in 4-6 months. However, the viral storm got the book in front of a designer named Peter Miles. He came by to see me to discuss designing and publishing the book. He looked through all the images and pulled out almost all of the ones that I had- plus a few that I had not. I knew right away that he would be great to work with. He explained to me that he could either put the book out through Rizzoli, where I would get paid well and the book would be widely available, but we wouldn't get to design the book without any restrictions. Alternatively, we could release the book on his imprint with Steidl. In this case we would be able to make whatever book we wanted, but it would take a long time, it would not be so widely available, and I might never see any money. I knew of Steidl, because I like photo books and I even filmed and interview once with Gerhard Steidl and Robert Frank. I thought that Rizzoli made more sense, not so much because of the money, but because I really thought it should be widely available. The next day I went to the Hot Docs Film Festival with "Battle for Brooklyn" and the first film I saw was "How to Make a Book with Steidl". In the film he makes books with Robert Frank, Ed Ruscha, etc etc. I decided to go with Steidl. I had hoped they would have noticed the viral interest and printed more books, but they underprinted to a great degree.

Is there an image from Malls Across America you personally covet or gravitate towards?

I don't have a favorite image. In fact the book is very much like a film -- in that it isn't about the individual images but instead what they do together.

The book does feel like a movie & an experience as a whole. Did you do a lot of editing in terms of choosing which photos would appear in the book? Could there be a Malls Across America II?

There could be a MAA II -- I did some editing, but the book was really designed by Peter Miles. He chose many of the same images I did, but he also saw it as a book and he chose some that don't really jump out by themselves, but really work in the context of a book. I think he did a pretty amazing job, and the printing is incredible.

It's a stunning book. Any strange or funny stories about your cross-country journey to photograph malls in 1989 you'd like to share now –– but haven't yet?

On the way down from Washington State to Oregon we pulled over on a side road to sleep for the night. We either stayed in camp grounds or just put down a blanket, and on this night there was no campground to be found. We pulled into a clearing and spread out our blanket and started to go to sleep at around midnight. About 20 minutes later we realized we were right next to a train track because a freight train started to rumble through. It took about 40 minutes to pass. We finally fell asleep again and woke up with bright lights shining in our eyes. Turns out the cops don't like people sleeping by the side of the road. When I sat up I realized that our sleeping bags had attracted a good number of slugs. We shook them off and hit the road.

1989 was an unusual time to capture in terms of fashion –– a transitional year, crossing from one decade to another. Aside from being difficult to tell which city you are in (since the malls and people look so similar) in 1989, you still found people dressing very mid-80's –– like rockers –– along with people starting to wear looks from the early-90's (from MC Hammer-style to grunge.) This allows for a more general interpretation of a time that's aesthetically boring. In a way, you couldn't have picked a better year to capture mall culture. How do you think the images would have fared –– in retrospect, today –– had you shot them in 1985?

I think that there would be a similiar reaction. While the change over is of interest, if it had been even more solidly the 80's, they might be even more popular.

Probably because they would have been more vibrant, distinctive, colorful. I love some of the fashion from the early to mid-80's. The styles worn in 1989 had a sad (sometimes funny) quality –– which comes across in your photos. Who or what were your personal influencers in 1989? Which movies, music (or music videos) do you recall enjoying most?

I was pretty into Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Nirvana, Mudhoney, NWA, and things like that. I was in college and you have to remeber this is pre- internet, so I didn't have a TV or cable, and I was in New York City. I would go see old movies at film forum and theater 80, and I spent a lot of time in a photo book store called, "A Photographer's Place. You could say that I was grunge before there was grunge.

Despite your being an amateur at the time, you had a great eye for composition & movement. The pictures have a provocative, emotional quality; some are so clean and sparse, almost lonely, while others capture the sense of feeling crowded in the mall. Did you ever plan ahead? Did you ask for people's permission to photograph them? Or did you just shoot from the hip?

I shot entirely from the hip. I think that one of the reasons the images connect with people is that they exist in a balanced place between amateur and professional. They aren't so sharp and perfectly composed that people feel like they are ART, but they aren't simply snapshots either. As such they just work. I think that I have carried this ethos through all of my work since then. I have always rejected professionalism.

I also enjoyed reading the text pieces you included at the end of Malls Across America, in which you and two other contributors ruminate beautifully about mall rat culture and a lost era. Who are the two contributors, and how did they end up writing for the book?

Margaret Parker is a writer who happened to be my girlfriend at the time. She's the one who brought me to the mall on Long Island. She's funny, smart, and a good friend. She had to write something for the book. Bela is a guy I know from being in a band. He booked all the shows in Columbus and we always stayed with him when we were on tour. Recently he's started writing about that era and I was blown away by him so I asked him to contribute something. I had a couple of other awesome pieces that people wrote for me but I left it up to Peter Miles in terms of what would go in the book.

Did you feel like these photos could find an audience in 1989? Or did you anticipate then that they might garner a greater interest decades on, after we'd gained some distance & perspective?

I was a little disappointed that I couldn't get any attention with them at the time, but I did know they would mean a lot more later, though I never could have predicted how much more!

Thank you for the chat, Michael. This was a pleasure & an honor.

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