Michael by Car

It’s hard to believe that it is coming up on 30 years since I climbed into a Toyota Corolla with my friend Sebastian and drove across the country to take pictures in malls. It was the summer of 1989 and I had just finished my sophomore year of college. The previous semester I’d taken my first college photo class; color printing. Our first assignent was to watch “River’s Edge”. I liked the teacher immeditately. A couple of years ago I called the Unviersity and did everything I could to find out her name so that I could thank her, but they were no help at all. The class was in the School of nursing and education, and she was not a full professor so they had no records of who taught the class. I took this class because one had to get permission to take classes in the art school, which is one of the reasons I hadn’t wanted to go to art school in the first place. At the time, I was often pulled in several directions at once in terms of my sense of self. I both knew that I wanted to be an artist, but lacked confidence in myself. I didn’t feel strong enough to go art school because I feared I would be too influenced by the expecations that I believed it entailed. All these years later I believe I made the right choice for myeself, but it has made my path much more difficult.


The class focused on the very basics of printing (it was a cibachrome class which meant we were primting from positive slides rather than negatives). Once we’d made a few practice prints the rest of the time we were instructed to find a project and focus on it. At the time I was dating a girl, Margaret, that I knew from North Carolina, where I grew up. We were acquaintances in high school but had gotten together at the end of the previous summer. She went to school on Long Island and I often took the train to visit her out there. I had my camera loaded with color slide film when she took me to the Smith Haven mall to find something she needed for a class. At the time I was taking a lot of sociology and religion classes so I was primed to think of the mall from that perespective, as an observer of the rythms and patters of the space.




This was 1989, and the mall was hopping. It was filled with bright colors and beams of light ripping through the skylights. The previous two winters I had been to Italy and Spain as part of college program and my first thought that day was how the mall was kind of modelled on the street malls in one of those cities. In this case though, the space was fully privatized even as it had all of the trappings of a public space. I was dragging my camera around so I knocked off a roll or two with great excitement. Years later when I made a book, at least 4 or 5 of the images came from these first shots. One shot that didn’t make it in the book was this one of a guy in a motorcycle jacket giving a bottle to a young child.

david yellen 2smm

My teacher was wildly supportive of the project and encouraged me to continue it. In my first year of college I made a lot of images, but I hadn’t had a real focus. With the mall pictures, not only did I have a subject, and a framework to work with, it was one that fit in with all of the writing I was doing about society and culture for my other classes. The mall was the new public space, commercialized to a degree that overwhelmed its public nature. I was aware of the fact that even shooting photos in malls didn’t carry the same level of legal freedom as shooting in a public space, so I shot from the hip and rarely lifted the camera to my eye for fear of being kicked out. One of the reasons that I liked this picture so much was that it played against type. Here was a guy who didn’t look like someone who would be taking care of a baby. I didn’t take a lot of photo classes but I looked at a lot of photo books, and this shot made me think of a Diane arbus photo of a guy and a girl with leather jackets and their young kid.


That summer we started out from North Carolina and headed towards the midwest. This was pre-internet so it was completely disorganized. We hit junk shops for fun and went into the malls wherever we found them. We might have had a tent, but even 12 or 15 dollars for a campground seemed like money we didn’t have to spend. so We slept on a blanket on the side of the road many nights. More than once we got rousted by cops and asked to move on. Just before we got to San Fransisco I had shot enough that it was getting to be a pain to wade through the rolls of film to find the ones that hadn’t been used so I separated out the shot from the unshot and stashed those rolls under the front seat. The next day we parked and enjoyed the hills of San Fransciso. We came back to find a smashed window, and most of our junk stolen. My un-shot film was gone, but luckily I still had the exposed stuff. We basically drove straight back after that because we didn’t have enough money to go on.

ice cream

I got the images developed and there were some great ones that made the trip feel worth it. There were also a lot of out of focus or under/over-exposed shots. I think I knocked off about 20 rolls total. I separated the good ones from the bad ones and left the crap at my parent’s home. (Years later I re-dicoverd the rejects and found some of the strongest images). I took the good ones back to New York and tried to get together the courage to take them to some galleries. I was 20 years old, and I was extremely conflicted about my own sense of self worth. Again, I believed in my abilities and ideas on one level, but I was also riddled with self doubt. I am sure that I didn’t present myself very well, but the couple of places that I brought the work to did not respond favorably at all. Over the next couple of years I took two photo classes in the art school. I had great teachers who were supportive, but I was very much an outsider because almost everyone else was a photo major. I didn’t really have a way to show anyone else the work so it went into a milk crate in my closet.

That same fall that I headed back to NY with the mall slides I also brought my bass guitar and I started a band. The next summer we lived together and began to take the band very seriously. A few years after that I had the opportunity to project the mall slides at an art gallery called thread waxing space between bands at one of our shows. After that they went unseen until 2010 when I borrowed a slide scanner from a friend. I put a few on-line and within a couple of days they had gone viral. I acted quickly and within a few weeks I started a kickstarter campaign to raise funds to make a book. I used the images to make a video for band I started after I got back from the trip and used that to promote the kickstarter. I also re-contacted the sites that had made the images go viral so that I might at least benefit from their ubiquity on the net.

Punk Rock City USA from rumur on Vimeo.

That book came out in 2013 and they went viral again and again in 2014 and then again last week. There is something that is both incredibly gratifying and engraging about this process at the same time. I think most artists make work because they want people to see it, and when the gatekeepers (galleries, editors, programmers, etc) make that difficult it can be frustrating. So, when the work goes viral, and leaps past all of those gatekeeprs, with vast numbers of people voting with their clicks, it means that the work is connecting with them. At the same time, it’s frustrating to see that this work could have connected much earlier if gatekeepers had seen its value. However, when the work goes viral without the permission or aid of gatekeepers, for the most part they still don’t see the work as having value. So even though these photos have gone wildly viral time and time again, only two of the images have ever been in a gallery show (and that’s only because the book editor made it happen). Further, when the work goes viral all of the sites driving the traffic profit and the artist (me) does not. When it first started to happen if felt like the work had gotten out of my control. Last week, a site posted FIFTY of the images without permission and even put their own logo on them. It’s crazy. When I did the kickstarter, a very talented designer offered to release it through his imprint with a powerful publisher. He designed a great book, and when it was printed I told their publicist that it would go viral. She was fairly patronizing, and told me that all photographer’s feel this way. When it did go wildly viral, it sold out before it hit stores. The publisher never paid me, would not give me copies of the scans they had made and never re-printed. That was every crazier.

The even more frustrating thing is that it also happens with our films. It took us almost 3 years to get our last doc “Who Took Johnny” any kind of distribution. When we did the audience repsonse was insane, but we still only have a single main stream review for it.


When the mall images go viral I get a lot of messages from people who think they see themselves in the picture. Most of the time it isn’t them, but sometimes it is. One time I got a note from a man who had come home from his father’s funeral to see a picture of his mom and dad going down an escalator on his AOL home page. He sent it to him mom and asked where it was taken and she told him that it must have been in Durham. That’s where this was taken. He was in shock, and so was I. I told him that I hoped it was not a bad omen that they were going down.


Last Friday I got a several emails about the same image. A woman in Michigan and one in Ohio both were positive they were the one in the jean jacket on the bench. Both couldn’t believe it was shot on Long Island. There’s the bottom half of another image above that. Later that day I got tagged in an instagram post by two friends. A guy had recogninzed himself and his family in it. It turned out that nearly 30 years later we have a lot of friends in common and he made a book that is not so disimiliar from mine. David Yellen, that his name, drove across the country and shot photos at metal shows of the people outside. It’s called Too Fast For Love: Heavy Metal Portraits.


So now David and I are friends on Facebook. This new round of viral has inspried me to start looking through the images to make a new book. I don’t need a publisher. I’ll just print the damn thing, put it up for sale and start shipping them.Then when they go viral at least I’ll be able to get books to people. The good news is that when I went through the images tonight I found so many that hadn’t caught my eye even a few years ago that now feel very strong. Time is good to images if not to flesh.


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