Of the thousands of images that photographer Michael Galinsky took in malls during the summer of 1989, this one really seems to strike a nerve, but not necessarily because of the big bangs and acid-washed leggings, he says. "I get so many comments about Tape World." Memories of lost stores and dubious fashions abound in his new book, the gloriously nostalgia-soaked Malls Across America.
As a photographer and filmmaker, Galinsky heads the multimedia firm Rumur and served as director of photography for the documentary Battle for Brooklyn. But, before that, he was a "very punk rock kid" majoring in Religious Studies at New York University.
On a whim, he took a few shots of the Smith Haven Mall on Long Island for an assignment in a color photography course which turned out to be well-received. "The teacher was really interested and said go to more malls," he remembers. So Galinsky did—taking his Nikon FG-20 on a cross-country road trip with a friend, photographing 15 malls across the U.S.
Galinsky was inspired by photographers like Robert Frank, who traveled the country photographing people for his 1958 book The Americans (which is also published by the German publishing house Steidl). "If Robert Frank was going to do The Americans now he'd probably shoot a lot of it in malls," says Galinksy. "The mall is the new downtown public space—but it's actually a private space." But he never got permission to photograph in any of the malls. "There was a lot of shooting from the hip," he says.
Looking back at the photos, Galinsky has a very difficult time remembering which images are of which malls due to the complete lack of regional differences. This was illustrated to comedic effect when Galinsky stumbled across a mall in Bellevue, Washington that was an exact replica of one he had visited in St. Louis, Missouri. "Even the restaurants in the food court were the same," he says.
As he finished the book last year, Galinsky re-visited a few of the malls. Some have been revitalized, usually meaning their names now include words like "Collection" or "Crossing." Some are nearly vacant, dying a slow death. Many are dead, like the South Square Mall near his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which has been replaced by big box stores.
Although the pure 1980s aesthetic seeping through the photographs is intriguing enough—Tight-rolled jeans! People smoking indoors!—Galinsky also thinks these images tell a deeper story about how much technology has infiltrated our lives. The most striking difference between these images and what you'll see when you step into a mall today? Everyone today is on their phones.
But the biggest cultural change—and the single biggest reason for the death of malls, in Galinsky's opinion—is the proliferation of online shopping. As evidence, Galinksy points to how these very images will be distributed. No one is going to stop in a local Waldenbooks to buy a copy of Malls Across America, he says. "Most people will get this book through Amazon."
In 1989, I was twelve and regularly traipsing around Chesterfield Mall in St. Louis County, one of the malls that Galinsky stopped at that summer. He might very well have photographed me hanging out at The Steak Escape. As I looked through the book's images, I'd have my 80s trance broken every few pages because I kept thinking I recognized people. Then, when I saw this photo, I did a double take:
I had this perm, a gold watch (mine was Guess), and unbelievably, I had the same color tunic, which I begged my mom to buy me during back to school shopping. This isn't me, but when I look at this image, I can't help but see myself, and I'd guess that many more women my age do, too.
I could probably have estimated that many girls in my town had a Units tunic, the same perm and a Guess watch—actually I know this, because at least a dozen of them were in my junior high school class. But now I understand that this exact scene was playing out across the country, every single day that summer. We were actually all part of a shared experience, but we didn't really know it at the time. Like a kind of time-capsule Instagram, Galinsky gives us almost a social media perspective on the past, and that's what makes his photographs so captivating.
Photos courtesy Michael Galinsky/Steidl/rumur.com