- Travel photographer Gray Malin, 34, is known for his dreamy, whimsical photography.
- It all began 10 years ago, when Malin began selling black-and-white photos at a flea market. Since then, his work has branched into his iconic aerial beach shots and scenes from luxury hotels.
- Malin spoke with Business Insider about how he grew his career from flea market to lifestyle brand, complete with a line of products and three coffee table books.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Gray Malin’s world didn’t start off in color.
The LA-based photographer is best known for the sunny beach photography that functions, effectively, as millennial catnip. On a recent call with Business Insider, Malin said the worlds he creates in his images are defined by “escapism, joyfulness, color.”
Malin, age 34, jumped into photography 10 years ago. After the Beverly Hills gallery representing him shut down, Malin turned to a local Los Angeles flea market, where he began selling black-and-white film photographs he had taken while studying abroad in Europe.
It was here that he says he learned what artwork customers wanted: “Many people found the art world cold and isolated, and they were looking for a more joyful and accepting approach.”
He took this knowledge to a small town called Marfa in his home state of Texas. With the help of his family, some cowboys, and a mule named Chula, he shot the iconic Prada Marfa art installation. You probably know the one: a lonely highway, a cotton-candy hued sunrise, a Prada boutique replica.
The “conversational, whimsical nature” of this image became contagious at the flea market, he said, and the 10 prints he typically sold on a Saturday soon became 30 or 40.
Ten years later, Gray Malin has evolved into a lifestyle brand that sells everything from wallpaper to beach towels in addition to photographs. Depending on print size, his art ranges from $249 to $2,499.
“When I took this leap of faith, I had no idea that photography would become sort of the art form of this generation,” he said.
The beginning of it all
Malin estimates that in his first year at the flea market, he sold 350 prints. He used that revenue to create an online portfolio, but he wasn’t selling anything digitally yet. When he stumbled across One Kings Lane, an emerging home design website, he sent them a cold email that led to a partnership. Within eight months, he said, he had sold 1,000 prints.
“It was really the start of my whole career,” he said.
It was also perfect timing. Malin was about to accidentally discover what he’s arguably most famous for: the beauty of math. During a fateful helicopter ride in Art Basel in Miami in 2012, he took his first aerial photographs. “When I got in the helicopter and saw those umbrellas and those chaise loungers, I saw geometrical patterns,” he said. “It’s part of composing an image, and I was inspired by the mathematical arrangement of form and rapid repetition of shapes.”
It launched him into a “crazy journey, traveling the world to photograph as many popular beach destinations as possible from this fascinating perspective,” he said. His days were spent flying 80 to 100 miles an hour in a doorless helicopter, the wind whipping his face and his lens shaking as he manually adjusted camera settings.
By the end of 2013, he had shot Hawaii, Cancun, Saint-Tropez, the Hamptons, Saint Moritz, Cape Town, and Dubai.
When his focus is not on aerial photography, he’s still creating images that have a distinctly dream-like quality — think balloon-adorned llamas on the salt flats of Bolivia and beach balls and umbrellas in Antarctica as a statement on climate change.
Malin is particularly proud of the Antarctica collection because of the difficulties of shooting there. “In one second, it can go from sunny to violently windy and it was just very dangerous,” he said.
From aerials to iconic luxury hotels
In 2014, Malin set out to solve a long-standing problem with his business: that his customers had to frame his photos. “I thought sort of like ‘What happened with taxis and Uber?” he said. “I could cut out the middleman.” He relaunched his website to sell framed prints; his husband left his corporate job and took over the logistics of running Malin’s website.
Then came a collaboration with menswear brand Orelbar Brown. The opportunity to print his photos on swimsuits, Malin says, “further expanded the notion that photography could come alive in unexpected places.” It also led to future collections with brands like Sperry, Swell, and Away. He soon began selling lifestyle products at boutiques and upscale retailers like Neiman Marcus and kicked off global partnerships with Le Meridien Hotels and Disney.
Meanwhile, his photography began taking a different direction toward luxury properties. He had photographed elephants and lions parading around the Parker Palm Springs, which opened doors for Malin to shoot at iconic resorts like Coral Casino and The Beverly Hills Hotel.
Malin’s journey was in part dictated by his Instagram. He joined the platform in 2012 for “fun and silliness.” By the end of 2013, pictures of his dog and travels had garnered him 10,000 followers. Today, it has 406,000 followers.
With his scope vastly expanded from his aerial photography days, Malin started turning to his growing followership for direction.
“I was starting to really listen to my audience and learn from them,” he said. “If I posted something and it got a huge reaction, I knew that was something they would want to see more of.”
By 2018, Malin had three coffee table books under his belt, including a New York Times bestseller, which he considers one of his greatest accomplishments. His success hit him during a 15-city book tour in 2017. “It was unreal to go from Instagram to real life and meet people, shake their hand, sign their book,” he said.
A world without travel
In a typical month, Malin spends two weeks traveling for work. For the two weeks of the month that he’s in his homebase of LA, he’s working with his team or hiking and eating his way through LA with his husband and twin children. But the pandemic has changed all that.
He’s had to postpone a photo shoot in Hawaii, but has been finding other ways to keep busy. In April, he started producing a weekly IGTV series, where he takes viewers behind the scenes of his career.
In July, he hosted a pop-up installation, the Gray Malin Cabina, at the Beverly Hills Hotel and released a New Zealand series that took him six months and two separate trips to shoot. “It’s one of those countries with really natural beauty,” he said. “To get to go there is one thing, but just to expose these images to people who’ve never been there, I hope that it inspires their bucket list.”
Malin said the pandemic has also led him to creating one of the most meaningful images of his career — a peace sign of flowers surrounded by a circle of legs. Originally shot for social media, he put it up for sale to raise money for Black Lives Matter. He said it sold 200 prints in a matter of hours.
For all his success, Malin says he still has a lot more to do. “I feel like I have so much in me still that I am fighting to create,” he said. “It’s just this constant explosion.”