The Decline of Mall Civilization, Michael Galinsky’s ode to retro American mall culture, may at first glance seem more focused on shoppers and fashion: images of food courts, video games, and blown-out perms. But the photographer and filmmaker says the underlying story is one of our cities and suburbs and how they’ve changed.
Galinsky’s second project that draws from a cache of photos he took of shopping centers in the late ’80s chronicles a cultural and urban turning point. White flight, industrial decline, and the abandonment of cities all conspired to make malls thrive 30 years ago, he says. But even the privatized, commercialized, often crass vision of community space found in malls decades ago can trip a nostalgia switch in readers who grew up going to these shopping centers, he says, but who have now become used to the shuttered storefronts and dead malls found in many commercial districts.
“[Looking at these photos] it’s like you’re plugging in an old drive, and the computer has to kind of work to pull it up,” he says. “That energy changes and transforms it, and sparks a different part of your brain.”
Galinsky released his first mall photo book, Malls Across America, in 2013 after rediscovering a collection of old photos while scanning old negatives. In 1989, when he was a 19-year-old college student at New York University, he decided to document a road trip that hit 15 different malls across the country. While he admits he was far from a professional photographer at the time—the amateur, occasionally blurry nature of the photos is part of the appeal—Galinsky also views his work as influenced by the lineage of street photography that sought to capture American life unfiltered, including the work of Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston.
He was also far from a mall rat. When he traveled the country with a camera, determined to document these spaces, he was a religious studies major with a fondness for punk rock.
But the color and shape of malls and shopping centers, often influenced by postmodern design, as well as their odd status as privatized real estate masquerading as public gathering space, attracted his attention.
Galinsky’s first book, which is now out of print, became a viral success when some of the photos were shared online shortly after release, and in the succeeding years has become popular with both book collectors and television and film designers, who use it as a reference for set design for period pieces (used copies can be found online for more than $1,000).
“These are images before the internet that paradoxically wouldn’t exist [in popular culture today] without the internet,” he says.
Galinsky’s new volume, first released last month after a successful Kickstarter earlier this summer, arrives at a time of heightened mall nostalgia. Between the so-called retail apocalypse, which has seen many shopping centers fold due to the competitive pressure of e-commerce, and throwback productions like Stranger Things, which spent much of its third season at a recreated mall, a larger cultural conversation is taking place about the past and future of retail. Malls are being reappraised and in many cases repurposed, especially since the rise of Amazon as a retail giant and the way shopping has been changed by the internet, as well as the appetite for new and better public space.
In many ways, the pendulum has swung back towards cities, especially in terms of retail, and shifted investment and development toward urban downtowns, Galinsky says. There’s still a strong pull towards nostalgia and escapism today, Galinsky says, that he believes makes these photos relevant.
“Especially in times of distress, and our culture is in deep distress, some people want to run towards the future,” he says, “but others run towards nostalgia, to ignore what the realities are.”