Shades of Gray

Gray Malin Talks Texas, Italy, and His Iconic Aerial Photography

The Dallas native comes to Houston next week for a signing of his latest photography book, ITALY.

By Abby Ledoux May 16, 2019

Gray Malin, best known for his vibrant aerial photography.

Even if you don't know Gray Malin, you've probably seen his work. Maybe you've unknowingly set one of his iconic aerial beach shots as your desktop background, or perhaps his Prada Marfa series even inspired your own trip to the desert.

The Dallas-raised, LA-based photographer has spent the last decade capturing beautiful scenes around the globe, mostly from a few thousand feet in the air. It's a style he popularized—nay, pioneered—and one that propelled his career to new heights (pun intended). That includes a slew of brand collaborations, from kids' furniture with Cloth & Co. to apparel with Splendid, and three books, the latest—ITALYa celebration of Mediterranean vistas inspired by his best-selling "La Dolce Vita" photo series—released just this Tuesday.

It's ITALY that brings Malin to Houston next Tuesday, May 21, for a signing at his childhood friend Bailey McCarthy's store, Biscuit Home. We caught up with Malin by phone ahead of his H-Town book tour stop to talk about growing up in Texas, his love affair with Italy, and how one Vegas pool kind of inspired his entire career.

How does being from Texas impact and inspire your work?

My whole career kicked off because of my roots in Texas. My parents moved from New York City to Dallas—I'm what I call a first-generation Texan in my family—and my dad took a liking to Marfa. We grew up going out there as a family, so when I came up with the idea to do the [Prada Marfa] project, we reached out to locals and friends of my dad's. It was really incredible to start a project in my home state that helped launch my career. I've truly, truly loved coming home to Dallas.

So, we have to ask: What about Houston?

I'm thrilled to be coming, and it's my first time [back in Houston] since I was probably 12 years old. I don't know if I've been there since then. My aunt and uncle and cousins lived in Houston, and we would come down to visit them often—we event spent Christmas in Houston one year. They lived in River Oaks, and they belonged to this beautiful, kind of old-world country club. I remember going and swimming in the pool and having the best time ever, and then I remember going to see Harry Potter for the first time and going to my very first-ever Central Market. It just felt like everything was bigger in Houston—like, wow, this Central Market is massive and I've never seen anything like it in my whole life. My impression is: a mixture of family, country clubs, and big shopping.

That's pretty much exactly what Houston is. Have you always been a photographer?

I stumbled into photography in high school, a dark room photography class, and I was like, what is this magical room of chemicals? I signed up the next semester, and it was an instant passion—more like obsession. I spent the rest of high school really honing my photography, and I won a bunch of awards in Texas.

You're a fellow Emerson College alum (go Lions!), but you ended up working for Paramount Pictures post-grad. What happened next?

It was a really interesting time, because it was 2008—the recession—and it was a weird experience for me to be working in a corporate environment when things weren't going well. It made me revert back to photography. I was able to find my ground with this Sunday flea market in West Hollywood. I had to figure out how to print my work and put it on display, and I got to chat with people in the community on Sunday mornings with their kids and their coffee and their dogs. They told me what kind of art they wanted for their homes, and I just listened. They felt excluded from the art world, and I just thought, why does art have to be so heavy? Maybe it can be lighter; maybe it can be more joyful. I thought about whimsy and fun and humor, and that's what gave way to Prada Marfa. Once I shot that, I hung it in my little booth and people thought I Photoshopped it. I was like, no, this is real. I realized people liked conversational art, and they liked something that was familiar but also kind of humorous.

How did you discover your now trademark style of aerial photography?

I went to Las Vegas with some friends for the weekend. In the morning, I pulled back the curtains in my room and looked out of the window, and we happened to be like 30 stories above their huge, huge, resort hotel swimming pool. It was probably the biggest swimming pool I'd ever seen, and I instantly had this notion of, that's beautiful. So I went and got my camera, and I could not believe I was taking pictures of a Las Vegas pool—like, what the heck? When I got home to L.A., I made the image my desktop background like a lot of people do, and I looked at it all the time. It made me so happy, all these people and all this color. I decided to go to Art Basel that December, and a lightbulb sort of exploded in my head: I was like, Gray, you should shoot more swimming pools from above. You're obsessed.

How did that lead to beaches?

Miami has not only beautiful hotels but beautiful swimming pools—very art deco. I got there and went into these hotels and said, "Hi, I'd like to make an artistic image of your swimming pool, can you give me access to your roof?" They were like, "Who are you? Scram, kid." I felt really defeated. It took me a minute, but I was like, Gray, you can get in the air, why don't you get a helicopter? I googled "helicopter comma Miami"—I'd never been in a helicopter; I knew nothing about them. The guy who answered the phone happened to be the pilot. He said, "I dabble in photography, don't worry—I'll remove the door and you can swing and put your legs out; we'll harness you in." I did it, and this random cell of storm clouds blew in off the Atlantic—we got there and no one was in the pool. It was gray and gloomy. I just thought, this isn't meant to be. I've done everything I can. Just as I accepted my defeat, I looked up from my lens and I saw the massive, sprawling hand of South Beach. I said to the pilot, "Do you mind if we fly over there for a couple minutes?" I snapped image after image; I was visually stimulated by these umbrellas and chaise loungers—this is breathtaking. I couldn't really afford to stay in the air any longer, so I went back to L.A., shared the images with some friends who loved them, and it sparked a drive in me to get to as many beaches in well-known areas as possible. By April, I had shot Australia, Hawaii, Rio de Janeiro, and Miami, enough to release a collection. That just started this whole amazing—well, for me it was my career, but for the design world it felt like a trend, somehow all from this crazy experience in Miami.

You've been all over the globe since then, but your latest book is focused on Italy.

After the beach aerial project took off I kind of came down to ground level, and what drew me to Italy were the retro umbrellas. If you look at pictures of Italy from the '70s, except for the quality of the film, you don't really know if it's today or the past because the umbrellas are the same. It became like a landscape series that was kind of nostalgic. I try not to photograph people on any technology to make it as vague as possible, and our audience really loved it. I found out that people in general just love Italy. Our No. 1 most popular print of all time is on the cover of the book.

Your aerial photos are so vivid and sometimes even symmetrical. What makes the perfect shot from above?

There are moments of total luck. I once flew in Barcelona and, I kid you not, they were setting up a beautiful television or movie set. I have no idea what it was, but they had staged an entire fake beach from ground-level—I'm talking every color. I shot it from above and it's stunning; it's the only beach image that's not real, it's staged, but I had no idea. You can only plan so far out, but if there's a storm or something and I'm still able to fly, I still go up because you never know what you'll find. It's really a matter of being persistent and keeping your eyes open through everything. A lot of the images you see, that is really, truly what it looks like. I'm up there and it's exhilarating, I'm zipping through the air, I'm leaning out of the helicopter, there's wind whipping me in the face, I have a lens glued to my eyeball, and I've been manually adjusting settings from dark water to light beach. On top of that, you're composing the image and you're directing the pilot through a microphone. You best love the image created.

Gray Malin's ITALY book tour will stop in Biscuit Home at 1614 Westheimer on Tuesday, May 21 from 6–8 p.m.

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