The Decline of the Mall Civilization
Photographs by Michael Galinsky
112 Pages of Color Photos
Reviewed by Robin Titchener
In 1989 filmmaker and photographer Michael Galinsky was a student at NYU, majoring in Religious Studies. It was during the course of his studies that he enrolled in his first photography class “Color Photography.”
At the time, and whilst considering what topic to select for his assignment, a chance visit to a shopping mall provided something of an epiphany. Observing the human ebb and flow in this ultimate of artificial environments, he realized that as a student, his interests in both anthropology and sociology meant that his view on these cathedrals to consumerism could be captured in a collection of images somewhat removed from what he considered to be a conventional take on “street photography.”
Galinsky’s tutor loved the initial work, and so, spurred on, a country-wide photographic study of the phenomenon of the American Mall began.
However what started with a bang ended with something akin to a whisper as, ironically, upon completion of the project, Galinsky sensed a shift in mood and attitude towards photographic trends of the day and, feeling that the project was likely to be unappreciated, shelved any plans to use or promote the work. This notwithstanding, time moves on, fashions and perceptions change, and when Galinsky revisited the work in 2010, the pendulum of taste had most definitely started to swing back in his direction.
Initially posted online, interest in the malls project exploded, and as a result, a Kickstarter campaign was initiated to raise funds and publish the work as a book. A simple summary of its history follows.
In 2013 Steidl published Mall Across America. Those in the know swooped down upon it, removing all trace at lightning speed . . . the rest of us were left scratching our heads as the book disappeared as soon as it arrived. In short, Keyser Soze would have proved easier to locate than a copy of Michael Galinsky’s Malls Across America. End of summary.
In 2018, aware that there was still a strong appetite for the work, and with no sign of a Steidl reprint about to happen any time soon, Galinsky chose to revisit his archive once more. In the intervening six years, however, the world had changed. Not the pictures (they are all from the same archive) but how we see them and what they represent shifted almost beyond recognition. The Decline of Mall Civilization was the result.
Once again Galinsky turned to Kickstarter to fund the project, easily surpassing his target figure several times over, but this time he chose to control and publish the book himself, with a larger print run of around 2000 copies, although be warned that subscribers to the Kickstarter campaign had already accounted for a 1000 of those.
A completely new selection of negatives were scanned and the style and layout reconsidered. In Malls Across America, the double-page spreads were all single-imaged. With Decline, the layout was switched to a sequence of carefully considered diptychs. Galinsky cites, among others, Robert Frank and William Eggleston as inspirations. Evidence of these pioneers is visible in the work. There is a vibrancy, energy and intimacy that lingers in the images. A beautiful distillation, an affirmation of the carefree cash—credit—rich attitude of the times. Even the endpapers are a combination of glorious colour clashes, very much in keeping with the excessive carefree decade that the project documents.
So to the work itself. Galinksy’s intention was to observe the societal habits and interaction of the people as they moved around and interacted within the space. At the time—not even twenty years ago—these malls had become everything from shopping destinations to community centres and playgrounds. Small town America appeared to gasp its last, as it looked towards these mighty Xanadus for its daily existence and support.
Once within their walls, the mundane reality of day-to-day life melted away. Everything was offered up in the name of pleasure and self-gratification. And if that makes it sound a little like some den of iniquity, well take away the sex, and that’s what you have: the ultimate in chaste pleasure palaces, capable of near ecstatic delight, a shining beacon of sounds, colours, lights and flavours. Full blown sensory overload, and all just a short drive from your dusty, drab, one-street towns.
Capturing these images in the nineteen-eighties proved to be an absolute bonus. Looking back, the seventies and eighties—from a fashion perspective—were the decades that taste forgot (trust me I was there), but such unique trends always makes for perfect and easily identifiable period pieces. Big hair, stone-washed denim, and Tiffany—the singer, not the jeweler—all ubiquitous symbols of the time. Observing these fondly-remembered icons of what was, for many, a happier time, is certainly one of the things that makes Decline not only such an enjoyable experience but also a wistful one.
The changes that have occurred since these images were captured have been profound and devastating. Economies have crashed, the internet has risen—making many shops little more than showrooms—and the malls themselves have evolved into the modern equivalent of a stately home—somewhere to visit on a rainy afternoon, somewhere to take the kids and keep them quiet.
So of course we still use malls, and they still have a purpose, but whether that is an economically viable one is another question. Money is what drives them, what allows them to exist and flourish. Indeed the sheer saturation of malls in the USA has already resulted in many closures and, subsequently, the coining of the term “dead mall.” Undoubtedly many will survive, but as time passes, it is also not unthinkable that Galinsky’s next project could well be of a series of empty, cavernous memorials to a time when money changed hands (real hands) and people actually communicated with one another without the aid of a computer.
A dark and quiet memorial—save for the quietly echoing tones of “I Think We’re Alone Now.”