We caught up with Gray Malin—the Los Angeles-based photographer who turned the world's most beautiful beaches into covetable works of art—to learn more about his roots, the artists who inspire him, and why he flew to Australia to take photos of green sheep?
Gray on location in Australia.
SF: Tell us about your childhood. How did it influence your career?
GM: When I was growing up in Dallas, we would vacation in Marfa out in West Texas. My family has a small property out there. Marfa was this really inspirational town—so artsy and sort of the opposite of Texas culture. It was definitely a cool thing to get to see as a younger person. Of course, Marfa has now become this popular, well-known place, but my first photo series that I ever shot was in Marfa, utilizing locals and people in the community. It’s what put me on the map as a fine art photographer. Marfa is where it all began.
Cowboy and Mule from Gray's Prada Marfa series.
SF: How did you come up with the idea for the aerial beach series that started it all for you?
GM: The idea for my beach photography came to me as a matter of fate. I had gone on a trip to Las Vegas with some friends and we arrived very late at night. When we checked into our rooms, it was dark outside. I woke up, pulled back my curtains, and sure enough we were on the thirtieth floor looking straight down on a giant, beautiful swimming pool. It was a gorgeous scene. I had my DSLR camera and took a photo. A month later, I rediscovered the shot on my computer and thought, “This is beautiful. I’m going to use it as my screensaver.”
The original Las Vegas photo.
One day a light bulb went off and I thought, “How cool would it be to shoot other pools from above?” So I ventured to Miami for Art Basel and called a bunch of hotels. None of them were interested in letting me on their roof. So I researched helicopter options and found this super nice pilot. I decided to just go for it. We were shooting above Miami and when we circled out over South Beach, I happened to see these gorgeous beach umbrellas and beach chairs from all of these different beach clubs and hotels. I asked the pilot to turn back and I just started shooting. I loved the geometrical form of the beach chairs and the circular umbrellas. I knew I was meant to see this.
I continued the project in other destinations where I already had plans to travel—Hawaii and Rio de Janeiro. And it all just spiraled into this really fun project that I’ve been able to travel the world to shoot.
I had never been in a helicopter. I had no idea what I was doing. You just have to step outside of your comfort zone and go for it sometimes.
SF: What are your beach essentials?
GM: I have a collection of fun beach towels. I also really like to play games. When I go to the beach I’m going with a deck of cards, a frisbee, a bottle of wine, an L.L. Bean totebag, People magazine, and maybe some Skinny Girl margaritas. I like to make a beach day a beach day.
SF: What was your big break as an artist?
GM: I think it was a couple of things. One was my Prada Marfa series. I went out there to shoot this project because I knew, thanks to an image I’d already taken of the installation, that people thought it was fascinating and didn’t believe it was real.
You just never know with the internet. It got a hold of Prada Marfa and sort of blew it up. It happened on its own.
I also started working with One Kings Lane in 2010 when they had just started. It was all about timing. The art world was moving online and I sort of knew that. I decided to go for it and got in on the early side of that wave. OKL sort of served as my gallery in the sense that it gave me exposure to people who I couldn’t reach on my own. When OKL became big in its own right, I did too.
SF: Do you have a mentor?
GM: I do. Her name is Aline Smithson. She taught me that fine art photography doesn’t have to be so serious. It can be humorous. It can be colorful. You can think outside the box. When I was going into it, I felt like in order to be a successful fine art photographer, I needed to spend a year in Tibet working with monks or something. She saw the Marfa photos, laughed so hard and said, “This is exactly what it’s about!”
I adore her and love so much of her work. I’m so lucky that my path crossed with hers.
A photograph from Smithson's Arrangement in Green and Black, Portraits of the Photographer's Mother
SF: What’s on your wall?
GM: We have a lot of Simply Framed on our walls! From my La Dolce Vita series I have this wonderful image that I took in Riccione, Italy. It’s of a man walking on the beach and there are all of these rainbow umbrellas around him. I love that photo. Everyday I feel like I am that man. I just remember him so well. It’s a great, personal memory.
I also have the Coogee Beach horizontal image hanging in our kitchen. It was the first aerial image I took that really blew up, which means a lot to me.
Gray's Coogee Beach photograph hangs in his kitchen.
SF: What's next on your to-be-framed list?
GM: We have a series coming out in a couple of weeks that was shot in Australia. It was inspired by a farmer from Scotland who was having his sheep stolen, so he dyed them all red. I read an article about it a few years ago and the images just never escaped my mind. It's a really whimsical, very fun series—so different from anything I’ve ever done. We’re going to frame it in the largest size for the house, but I’m not sure where it’s going yet.
SF: What artist working today inspires you?
GM: I certainly adore the work of Massimo Vitali. His work is very expensive so unfortunately I don’t own one. Whenever I’m opening up a magazine or on a website or on Pinterest and I see one of his images, even though I’ve seen it a thousand times, I stop to look at it again. I’m still so in love with what he did and what he is about. It would be a dream to meet him one day.
When I went to Bolivia I was mentored by a photographer named Gaston Ugalde. He is incredible. I own two of his pieces but I wish I could buy all of them.
One of Gray's favorite Gaston Ugalde photographs.
A friend of mine, Paul Andrew Dunker, is working on a project right now that focuses on the skulls of longhorns. It’s really cool. I’m interested to see where he goes. He’s new to the scene and I think he has a big career ahead of him.
SF: Favorite beach umbrella?
GM: I absolutely love fringe. On our website there’s an image called Rivazurra Green and White Umbrellas with Tassels. It’s part of my La Dolce Vita Series. It’s the coolest beach umbrella I’ve ever seen.
Gray's Rivazurra Green and White Umbrellas with Tassels.
SF: What’s next for you?
GM: We are very excited to be launching a collection with Sperry Top-Sider, one of my favorite brands, for spring 2015. We’re collaborating on a line of men’s and women’s shoes. They’re really fun. On a personal level, I’ve been wearing boat shoes for the better part of my life. It’s amazing that we’re going to be able to work with this brand. And then we recently launched our gift wrap, inspired by one of our aerial images that we turned into a pattern.
Rolls of Gray's new line of giftwrap.
SF: You straddle the line between fine artist and international brand. Your images have been used on iPhone cases, bathing suits, surfboards, you name it. How did you make this leap?
GM: It happened about this time two years ago. I did an interview just like this one with a PR agency in London for a brand called Orlebar Brown. They make resort and beachwear. I made a joke on the phone like, “Oh by the way, they should print some of my photos on their bathing suits.” And she laughed and I laughed. A week later the owner of Orlebar Brown reached out and suddenly we were talking about collaborating on a bathing suit line. It was picked up by department stores all over the world, from Bergdorf Goodman to Saks. It really opened my eyes. Since then, we’ve been enjoying reaching out to brands that we like and really exploring opportunities everywhere. We actually have a second line of swimwear coming out with Orlebar Brown this December that features images that I shot over Miami.
SF: You travel a lot for work. What’s your favorite thing to do at home?
GM: I love all the simple things. I literally love to water the plants in our backyard. I love to throw the ball with our dog. I love to chop up vegetables in the kitchen. I enjoy being very domestic because I feel it’s the little things in life that you take for granted.
Gray at home with his dog Stella.