My Virality

I am 43 years old.  I  came of age at a time when photographers developed their own film and, for the most part, printed their own pictures.  There were no digital cameras and the internet was not the internet.  It is almost hard to remember a time when people weren’t instagramming pictures of every meal to 10,000 followers, but 20 years ago very few people knew how to use a camera.  They didn’t have cell phones and they smoked in malls, restaurants, and airplanes.  When things change incrementally over time, we tend to forget how they used to be.  It is through images of the past that we begin to understand how different it is from the present.

When I was 20 years old I drove across the country and took color photographs in malls.  It was 1989 and malls were at their peak in terms of their importance in our culture.  For the most part, I cruised through the mall shooting from the hip, hoping to capture moments without people noticing.  I was interested in mundane moments.  In 2011 and again in 2012 the images went wildly viral on the internet.  It seems that people interested in fashion and in public spaces (urban planners) have found them most interesting, but it’s clear that they strike a chord with anyone who went to the mall in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Last week a kid saw a couple of the images online and made a web page to share them.  In 10 days they have been viewed over 3.4 million times.  Following this viral response makes me think a lot about the nature of image making in the age of the internet as well as the nature of my own work.

In 1983, when i was in the 9th grade, I took my first photography class.  I had always liked looking at and taking pictures, but the magic process of watching images form in the developer bath blew my mind.  I quickly became “that” guy in high school who hogged the darkroom and took most of the pictures for the school paper and the yearbook.  Poring over photo books at the library, I was drawn to images by artists like Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander.   I had the sense that they were secret observers grabbing simple images that hinted at a story.  I felt like I could make pictures like them in the sense that I was less interested in technique than in ideas.  They captured something personal, ephemeral, and epic all at the same time.  There was an awareness that they were freezing something that would disappear forever without their divine intervention.  It was the substance behind the image, underneath it, that pulled at me.  I could understand that Ansel Adam’s work required great skill, but it didn’t interest me in the way that Bruce Davidson’s pictures of teenagers at Coney Island did.

I knew I wanted to be a photographer “when I grew up”, but I didn’t want to go into commercial photography or advertising.  I abhorred advertising.  I also felt no connection to the art world, yet didn’t see myself as a journalist.  In other words, I had no clear pathway to follow in order to make the work that I wanted to make.  To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what kind of work I wanted to make or how to make it.  My lack of forward thinking put me on something of an emotional collision course with my father.  He modeled mildly rebellious behavior, had unreasonable expectations, and made it clear that he wanted us to follow a safe course in life.  My mother uncritically complimented almost everything I did.  I was left with a complex sense of self; a deep cynicism coupled with an underlying sense of self-doubt.  Yet I also had a strong feeling of confidence in my abilities.  In short, I was left confused and anxious and I learned to project an air of confidence to cover for my sense of lostness.   The fact that I chose to make work that is often subtly challenging has made it even more difficult because it’s the kind of work that doesn’t attract mentors or support.

My parents were academics; a psychology professor (father) and social work professor (mother).  My sister had a hard time finding her way before becoming a physician’s assistant.  I saw my parents struggle to deal with my sister’s lack of direction.  My brother went to Harvard and followed in my father’s footsteps, studying social psychology on a path towards a PhD.  Having grown up in a college town, I had a sense that the cloistered walls of academia led to a kind of stasis.  There was a sense that it wasn’t the “real world”.  Still, I didn’t consider not going to college, but had no illusions or ideas the for me going to college would directly lead to some kind of career.  It wasn’t simply irresponsibility.  In my mind, a career meant compromise, almost failure.  The obvious pathways didn’t seem clear or even possible to me.

I ended up in New York and took a lot of philosophy/ religious studies/ anthropology classes.  I had no intention of being a professor.  This gave me a lot of freedom to follow my interests.  In the end, I became a religious studies major because when it was time to declare my major, I had already completed the requirements.  In addition to the philosophy, anthropology and sociology classes that filled my schedule, I took some photo classes.  There was something about the art school in my college that made me deeply uncomfortable, so I took my first photo class in the education department.  When I did take classes in the art school, I saw that it was very career-driven and structured.  The kind of work that got a lot of attention from the teachers was that which was easily recognizable, or brandable in some sense (i.e. sellable).  I don’t think that I really believed, or had full confidence, in the idea that I could be an “artist”.   In some sense I had bought-into a myth of the artist that exists more in fantasy than reality; wildly creative, brilliiant, narcasistic and prone to wild mood swings.  Still, all I ever really wanted to do was make art.

Looking back 25 years, I sometimes wonder if I would have been better off just following the beaten path, but in the end, I don’t regret my decision.  Having no connection to the art world has allowed me to grow without any real pressure to conform.  It’s made it hard to focus on art but to me so much of art is simply thinking.  In a graphics class in high school I made a T-shirt out of photo I took of a graffittied Andy Warhol quote, “Art is anything you can get away with.”  The phrase both fascinated and annoyed me.

I was trying to figure out what I would do for my first photo project when I shot a roll of slide film at a mall on Long Island.  I was very conscious of the colors, the details, and the way in which people interacted in the space.  As all of my classes in philosophy, religion, and anthropology focused on ideas of observation. I was especially aware of the clothes people wore, how they interacted, and what their interactions meant.  That mall that I spent a lot of time in on Long Island was always a seething mass of people.  Boys stood in groups and watched for girls.  Families sat on benches as if the mall were the public square.  I thought about how the mall was replacing the downtown as a place where community came together.  I grew up in a small college town in the south where we cruised the mall during the day and the downtown strip (with arcade) at night.  I was interested in what the images said about society in subtle ways rather than making images that were about being images.  That is to say I was more interested in the content of the images than their slickness or “pop”.

When I got my first roll of slides developed, I was pretty ecstatic and my teacher was even more so.  “You have to go back this weekend!” she exhorted.  She seemed to really understand what I was trying to do and we both quickly realized that the project wasn’t about that mall in particular.  It was more about the idea of malls and the role they played in society at that moment.  I decided to drive across America and shoot in every mall I could find.

Ironically, at the time the one place that I didn’t want to spend any time at all was the mall.  I was deeply anti-consumerist and pretty much only wore thrift  store clothes.  I often felt somewhat panicky at the mall and wanted to escape.  Shooting photos was the only thing that would draw me there.  At the same time, despite my sense of alienation at the mall, I had no intention of making fun of people.  I definitely saw myself as an outsider, and that distance gave me the ability to see things almost as if I was coming from another culture entirely.   I was aware of the history of photography and I saw the work as following in the footsteps of Robert Frank when he shot “The Americans”.  In many ways, I was approaching the project as much like an anthropologist as a photographer.  I didn’t want to make images that called attention to the photography as much as it did the time, place, and story going on.   I think this is why they are striking such a chord 20 odd years later.  It’s also why no one seemed to find them all that interesting when I first took them.

My friend Sebastian and I roared across the country, stopping in junk shops and thrift stores for ourselves, and malls for my project.  The junk shops, and the objects we found there, told us a great deal about the communities we were in, and opened a window into the past.  The malls gave us no sense of place.  In fact, when I got my slides back I often had no idea where the images came from.  In fact, one mall in Washington State was identical in layout, as well as fast food chains, to one in Missouri.  It was pretty surreal to visit so many malls.

When I got back to New York, I was a junior in college with no connections in the art world.  I tried to show them to a few galleries but they basically laughed at me.  I thought they were strong, but my underlying sense of confidence was still challenged and I didn’t push very hard to get people to pay attention.  I put the slides back in their boxes and moved on.   I took some more photo classes, and started playing in a rock band.  I ended up documenting the music scene that I was a part of and found an outlet for my work in fanzines, magazines and album covers.  I loved to see my work reproduced as it made those images a part of the permanent record.

During the next decades I played music, took some pictures, and eventually concentrated on being a filmmaker.  Filmmaking allowed me to travel even further into the idea of using images to tell stories.  Photography slipped further into the past tense as part of my identity.  My future wife and I started to make narrative films that were almost documentaries and then moved on to documentaries that felt like narrative films.   I have always been fascinated with storytelling and documentation and always rejected artifice in favor of the real.

A couple of years ago I stumbled across a box of the mall slides.  It took me some digging around in drawers and boxes but I found most of the boxes that I had squirreled away.  I went on facebook to ask if anyone had a scanner I could borrow.  A few weeks later I had scanned in about 100 of them and I put them up on our facebook page.  The response was strong.  The images had aged well.  A couple of days later I saw that my brother in law had posted a link to some really wonderful Bruce Davidson photos of people on the NY subway in the 70’s.   Something about them made me think of my mall photos so I emailed the site and shared my work.  The site’s owner told me he liked them, but without alerting me, he posted them on the site.  By the time I found out, the images had gone viral.  They were on dozens of blogs and people were responding as I had hoped they would.  I quickly set up a kickstarter page in order to make a book of the images.  I contacted all of the blogs that had posted the images and asked them to repost, with a link to my project.  For the most part the people who started the explosion of interest were people who worked in fashion.  While there were a lot of pictures of late 80’s fashion that existed, I think there were very few that documented real people in real environments.  At the time everyone took the space for granted.

My efforts to promote the kickstarter campaign re-ignited the viral spin of the images and they even ended up on some main stream news sites.  It also led to someone sending a link to designer Peter Miles.  He reached out to me to discuss publishing a book of the work.  In addition to dealing with the photos, my partners and I were in the midst of finishing a film that was going to premier in a few days at a festival in Toronto.  Peter stopped by in the midst of our rushing around preparing for the trip.  I gave him the boxes of slides to look through.  After an hour, he showed me the ones he thought were the strongest.  They were basically the same ones I had chosen.  He was confused about the idea of the images being out in the world, and what that meant in terms of their place in the world of art.  I responded that if it hadn’t been for the internet, he would never have known about them.  For someone like me, existing outside that world, the internet allowed me to leap over the gatekeepers and prove to people that the work had value.

He offered to do a book with either Rizzoli or Steidl. He told me, “If we do it with Rizzoli, you won’t have as much control over the details.  They will make a lot of books, and you will probably make some money.  If we do Steidl, we’ll have control over how it looks.  You probably won’t see much money, but it will be a Steidl book.”  I knew that Steidl made books for the most important photographers, including Robert Frank.  However, I was torn.  I saw the work as being populist, and popular.  I kind of wanted a less expensive book that would be in Malls.  I was leaning towards doing it with Rizzoli.  Peter and I shook hands and agreed to push forward.

The very next day I went to Toronto for the film festival.  We got there early enough to see a film.  Oddly enough, we went to see “How to Make a Book with Steidl”.  It’s a very good film and needless to say I called Mr. Miles after the film to say, it’s got to be Steidl.  A few weeks later the stress of everything led to my back seizing up.  I had been to visit my mother’s house and had found many boxes of “rejected” slides.  For the most part these were either out of focus or were not as immediately strong as images.  However, time had given some of them importance.  The wider shots were important for giving a better sense of the space.  Amazingly, out of about 300 new images Peter chose the same 10 or 15 that I had settled on.

He went through the slides as I lay literally stuck on my office floor.  I had been there for about 4 days when he came and I still could not sit up.  A combination of stressful factors had led me to this place.  The primary driver of my frustration was that we had made an amazing film but it had been rejected by nearly everyone.  After premiering at the important festival in Toronto, where it got great reviews and standing ovations at sold-out screenings, we literally could not get any other big festivals to show it, nor any distributor or TV buyer to call us back.  This level of dismissal was overwhelming to me.  So while I lay on the floor I told Peter the story of all of my work; the movies, the records, the photos.  He said with some incredulousness, “You’ve just never gotten a break.”  The truth is, we had had many breaks.  Our films had played at most major festivals, my band’s records were well reviewed, our films had been well reviewed.  However, what was true, is that we had never found any solid or continued support.  We also hadn’t made a path for ourselves that provided one, like a teaching gig or a steady stream of commercial work to tide us over.  We had some minor financial success with a couple of films but the money had run out and we really needed to sell our film.  The lack of support was crushing both emotionally and pragmatically.  I didn’t see how I could continue doing what I was doing without a break, but I also couldn’t see any other reasonable course of action.  I had half a dozen projects going and no money for any of them.

I have a tendency to push myself beyond my capacity.  When my body tells me to slow down, I push harder, partly because I feel weak.  I rarely have the sense that I have worked hard or well enough.  This set me on a collision course with the floor.   As I lay there unwinding the personal and professional stresses that had slammed me to the floor, I replied to Peter that maybe he was that break.  Maybe his making of the book would be the nod of support that we needed to get past all the gatekeepers.  He laughed lightly and replied, “Maybe so.”  The book still isn’t out but a few months later our fortunes started to change.  The world started to catch up with us.

In the same way that people weren’t ready for the mall slides, they also weren’t ready for our film.  The film deals with deep yet subtle levels of corruption and denial that exist in the relationship between business, government, and the media.  When we got it in front of audiences they loved it.  Still, we had trouble getting past the gatekeepers.  However, after the Occupy Wall Street movement started, people began to understand the film and not only were we invited to festivals, but it was short-listed for an Oscar.  Then it led to us getting a very prestigious grant.  For the past year, things have really been picking up for us and our work.  Over the next many months, Peter and I met a couple of times and he worked on putting the book together.  In the meantime the images have continued to bounce around the internet.  If one google’s 1989 malls, the images that come up are almost all mine.  I think this is because almost no one thought to shoot in these mundane poorly lit places.  I’m so happy that I did.

1 Comment
  • Kristi Gordon
    Posted at 18:18h, 15 July Reply

    Hi Michael –

    Stumbled on this while reading your post on Trayvon Martin (heartbreaking and frustrating). I’m struggling with that outcome deep in the heart of a very red state where a majority of people believe the verdict was just. I miss Chapel Hill – but NC is looking worse than TN now as a whole. Never thought I’d say that.

    But also wanted to say that this post spoke to me on so many levels. It was good to reconnect with people at the reunion last winter – but it wasn’t a place for very in-depth conversations. What you write here speaks to what it was like to grow up in Chapel Hill. It was a unique place that generated unique people. There were beautiful things about it but there were pressures and undercurrents and fissures that will “slam you to the floor” later in life if you don’t see them coming. And I wonder how many of us ever see them coming? I hear you are going back to CH for a year. Will your daughter get her wish to go to Culbreth? I’d love to catch up sometime if and when I go back home.

    Best, Kristi (Coop) Gordon

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