It’s a scorching hot afternoon in April and photographer Gray Malin is standing on a mirrored raft, floating on Bora Bora’s crystalline waters next to a row of picturesque beach bungalows, trying to get the perfect image. He’s been out shooting since 6 a.m. with his two assistants and it’s their third shot of the day for a his Follow Me series, an ongoing collaboration project he’s been doing with Le Meridien Hotels & Resorts inspired by their various exotic destinations around the globe, from Bhutan to Barcelona to Bora Bora. For this particular shoot in French Polynesia (titled The Art of Living), which he and his team spent many months preparing for, he’s shipped three airplane cargo shipment full of props ranging from large beach umbrellas to a standing coat rack. Compared to some of his other shoots, this could even be considered easy.
“I think people don’t realize how much hard work goes into a single photograph,” said Malin, 30, who is based in Los Angeles. “I hate when people ask if I use a drone or if I create some of these situations with Photoshop. I try to get what is there and bring that to the table—I don’t like to change much in post.”
Less than ten years ago, Malin was hawking his work at the local flea market in Los Angeles for $65 a print. These days, he’s quickly becoming an internationally recognized name in photography, known for his instantly recognizable photos that are fun, beachy, and often tinged with a sense of humor. He’s amassed a massive fan base (if his instagram is any indication, his account @graymalin has 169k followers and counting), which includes celebs like Reese Witherspoon, and has partnered with major brands on special projects like Le Meridien and Veuve Clicquot. This month marks yet another big milestone for Malin with the release of his first monograph, titled Beaches.
“It’s always about creating work that looks fabulous in an interior space and making sure that work is joyful,” said Malin over the phone of his signature aesthetic. “ I want it to swoop someone away and take them somewhere great.”
The wanderlust-inducing tome features work, both unseen and some of his most popular images, from his stunning aerial beach collection À la Plage. “No matter where you are from or what language you speak, the beach serves the same purpose for everyone,” said Malin. “It is a place people go to find a bit of happiness and freedom, a moment alone, and it brings people together. This book really celebrates that.”
For the project, Malin trekked to six continents to capture more than 20 beaches, from Cape Town to Sydney, all shot from door-less helicopters. To get these shots, Malin would go up in a helicopter with just his camera and get harnessed in so he could hang out the door and take pictures. While they flew at 100 miles per hour, the wind whipped in his face as he looked for his subjects and perfect geometry. All of it was shot manually.
He first developed his signature aerial beach photography aesthetic after a fateful road trip to Las Vegas with a few friends back in 2011. “We got there really late on Friday night and on Saturday morning I pulled the curtains and we had a perfect bird’s eye view of the swimming pool down below. It was full of people and I felt so inspired by it so I shot it,” he said. “I made that shot my desktop screensaver when I got home and a couple months later, I decided to create a series around this perspective. When the light bulb went off, it really went off.”
Prior to that, the Dallas native’s most successful work was his Prada Marfa series.
On a family trip to Marfa in 2010, he decided on a whim to shoot some photos on the roadside in front of the now infamous store for a photography class project. (He’d started taking the class after quitting his film business job for his true passion, photography.) “I grew up going to Marfa, my parents were New Yorkers who transplanted to Dallas and they certainly think outside the box,” he said. “I begged everyone to go to this installation that had just opened there outside of Marfa. We had stopped at this roadside store for a snack on the way and had the banana peel in the car so I decided to shoot it on the side of the road in front of Prada, almost like an ode to Andy Warhol or something.”
His teacher ended up liking the series so much, Malin was inspired to go back and shoot a full series in Marfa. Those images quickly sold out at the flea market and on his website and before he knew it, Malin’s work went viral. “After the Prada series, I thought I was going to be like a Carly Rae Jepson or something, one-hit wonder. I was scared,” admitted Malin.
He started selling his works on the internet just before the art world started getting comfortable with e-commerce. At the same time, his work (unsurprisingly) spread on social media like wildfire. It was a perfect storm of good timing, persistence, and talent. Malin was never meant to be a one-hit wonder.
He’s currently on a book tour to promote Beaches. He has been jetting all over the globe, from Antarctica to Rio de Janeiro (home to some of his favorite beaches in the world), to make his creative visions come to life. Along the way, he’s escaped falling falling glaciers and worked with live animals like tigers and sheep all in the name of his whimsical art. “Art is a huge word and so many people don’t understand it,” said Malin. “With my work, I want everyone to feel included with it. I want to everyone to feel happiness and a sense of escape.”