Winter is coming, but you wouldn’t know it flipping through Gray Malin’s new book.
"Escape," Malin's latest collection of travel photographs, can transport you from the sun-drenched beaches of St. Barts to the dusty plains of Namibia, no passport required.
The 31-year-old Los Angeles-based fine arts photographer, who got his start hawking travel prints at a West Hollywood flea market, now has more than a quarter of a million followers on Instagram, a devoted celebrity fan base (including Meghan Markle, Rihanna and Reese Witherspoon) and a New York Times bestseller ("Beaches").
Malin, currently on an eight-city book tour — he appears at Salt and Sundry in the District on Oct. 11 — recently discussed his new book and his favorite travel destinations with The Washington Post. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Tell me a little bit about making photography a full-time job. When did you realize you could turn your passion into a career?
A: I shot a series in West Texas, the Prada Marfa series, in my early 20s, and it did so well in the flea market that it gave me the courage to switch to online sales. It was around the time when people were just starting to be comfortable with purchasing art online. It really helped put my career on the map and get me to where I am today.
Q: The book features photographs of more than 22 destinations in 11 different countries. How did you narrow down what destinations and images to include?
A: My first book, "Beaches," was all about beaches, and while I love the beach, my work over the past five years has taken me all around the world. My team and I looked at the various projects I've done and divided them into six general categories: surf, snow, pools, sand, isles and parks.
Q: How much research goes into planning and visualizing a shoot?
A: Many people don't realize the lengths I go to to capture these images. We live in a Photoshop world, and people don't really understand what's real and what's not. I've never used a drone, and they certainly weren't around when I started all of this.
It takes months of preparation to storyboard and execute a shoot. I’ll tell my team, “Guys, I have this amazing idea: llamas in balloons,” and sometimes they look at me like I’m crazy. But then we’ll start researching how we can actually pull it off, like how we can recruit local help and transport props there. We also consider weather, lighting and timing.
Q: Aerial photography sounds a bit frightening; dangling out of a helicopter without doors can’t be easy. Have you ever had a scare while shooting that way?
A: Surprisingly, I don't really get scared. When I'm up there, I get lost in my lens. Even though it's windy and incredibly dangerous at times, my camera is my shield and I lose myself in the art of it all.
Q: You often work with animals in your shoots, including llamas, elephants and zebras. Can you tell us what it’s like working with them?
A: The llamas are so interesting! When we draped the balloons over them, they suddenly became calm and held their positions for so long that I was even able to turn the camera around and take a selfie with them. They were really soaking up the moment. The sheep, on the other hand, were more skittish and just wanted to run off. They are little guys and didn't exude as much confidence.
Q: What camera(s) do you pack on your travels? What are your other travel must-haves?
A: I must admit, I'm not really a camera guy. I don't have loyalty to a specific brand and I switch around. Right now, I'm shooting with a Canon, but if Nikon comes out with a higher quality camera I'll go over to them. But I am kind of a nerd when it comes to camera bands. I own a leather camera wrist band, so my camera dangles loosely at my side rather than my neck.
Q: Taking about escapes, what are your favorite summer and winter escapes?
A: I grew up going to Lake Michigan every summer, and still do, which sort of gave birth to this whole book and my whole brand. My favorite winter escape in recent years has been the Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah.
Q: What is one of the most incredible escapes you’ve ever experienced?
A: A great part about a book is exposing people to new places, like the "Snow Polo St. Moritz" series in Switzerland. It's a snow polo tournament played on a frozen lake in the Swiss Alps. I almost died when I saw the Matterhorn. I would tell anyone to put that on their bucket list.
Namibia was also one of the most interesting escapes I’ve ever had because it was so quiet. There are no cellphones or Internet. The sunsets there are so peaceful. I know why Angie [Jolie] and Brad [Pitt] had their babies there — there’s no place like it.
Q: What advice do you have for amateur photographers who want to capture memorable images on their own escapes?
A: I always tell people to think about lighting. I see people taking pictures all the time and they are not aware of where the sun is. It's also fun to put your hand or some part of your body into a photo. It makes it feel a little more personal, and when somebody sees the image, they can relate to the image just a tiny bit more. It adds a human aspect to it.
Q: You are very active on social media, particularly Instagram. Can you talk about how it has helped you shape your business and how it has changed fine art and travel photography?
A: It has definitely help shaped my business. I started my career at a Sunday flea market in West Hollywood and sold black-and-white prints I shot in Europe. My mentor said, "You need to get a gallery and have someone who validates who you are." But I wanted to make work that people wanted to hang in their homes, not art they were told to like by somebody else. So, I went directly to the consumer.
I think Instagram has allowed artists to get that kind of feedback instantly, through comments and likes. I pay attention to what people’s opinions are and it often can help lead me to think differently or head to new destinations that I haven’t thought of before.
Q: Can you tell us about your upcoming work? Any new travel destinations on the horizon?
A: I just did a shoot last weekend in Santa Barbara that will come out next year and am planning to shoot in Thailand next year.