The photographer inspires wanderlust with his cheekily joyful travel images. How he got his start might surprise you.
By Trish Bendix Photos courtesy of Gray Malin
When it comes to travel photography, Gray Malin is a pro at capturing the aspirational element of what we love about getting away: Sure, there’s the beauty of a destination, but Malin manages to elicit a sense of joy with the simplest subjects, from rows of colorful umbrellas to surfboards on a beach. And dogs. A lot of dogs.
Now also a New York Times best-selling author, Gray Malin left a lucrative job in corporate America to pursue photography. It was a risky move, but his first series, “Prada Marfa,” was a huge success.
Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Malin staged and shot the faux fashion boutique slash art installation in the artist enclave of the West Texas town against a desolate high-desert backdrop.
Shots like “Mule” include a beautiful brown horse parked outside of the Prada outpost as if a customer had trotted over from a nearby ranch.
“Two Cowboys II” shows its titular hatted stars atop their steeds, staring into the golden light of the glamorous shop’s windows.
The photographer’s work has since continued to play with viewers’ expectations, creating situations saddled with irony and whimsy.
The horses were just the first of many of his muses: Malin has gone on to feature exotic animals including penguins, elephants, giraffes, flamingos, and lions, all stemming from a fateful trip to the Parker Palm Springs in 2015.
“I think artwork should, you know, excite people and get them to talk. That is very important to me.”
The luxury mid-century California hotel is set on a 13-acre complex that boasts contemporary art and redesigns from Jonathan Adler, all of which gave Malin a colorful, playful space to realize his dream of shooting a monkey playing ping pong, a camel transporting luggage on his hump, and a parrot playing a round of golf on the green. Just to name a select few.
Shot in the early mornings before guests awoke to start their days, Malin’s animalistic Parker series spawned several offspring after, with the photographer finding himself at other iconic hotels, including The Plaza Hotel in New York City and The Breakers Palm Beach in Florida.
It was at the latter where a visiting yellow lab inspired an impromptu and important capture.
“They shut down the front entrance for me,” remembers Malin. “I had like 12 models, everyone dressed in 1960s attire—it was incredible—and we ended up shooting a solo shot of just the dog. It sort of stuck with me.”
Malin went back to Los Angeles, where he lives with his husband and two children, with an idea for an all-dog shoot at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Small dogs, big dogs, classic, and symbolic breeds of all shapes and sizes became the inspiration for Malin, who found a new magic in placing dogs in otherwise human environments.
“There’s just an incredible world within dogs,” Malin says. “It all started from an organic, natural approach to photography and something unexpected. Part of the great significance of being an artist is that you just never really know where [the art] is gonna take you.”
What began as a series of different sizes and breeds living a fantastical life lounging at the pool has now turned into what Malin is perhaps best known for, as his Instagram following can attest.
“When I see these images with the dogs, it makes me laugh,” Malin says. “It makes me feel good. It’s unexpected, whimsical art.”
Malin has shot man’s best friend in the wintery setting of Aspen, Colorado, and the beaches of Nantucket, but more recently he returned to Palm Springs for a series that became a hit during lockdown.
He attributes its popularity to the pure joy that comes from seeing dogs enjoying themselves at the Parker’s Lemonade Stand or a pair of dalmatians sharing drinks by the pool in a photo called “The Perfect Spot.”
While many of Malin’s fans have connected with his work because of its canine subjects and others the locations, for most it’s been the feeling of being transported—especially over the last couple of years.
“There’s a total escapism in my work, which is really part of it,” Malin says. “There are some real realities, but I like people to think it’s real. There’s fantasy involved.”
“When I see these images with the dogs, it makes me laugh. It makes me feel good. It’s unexpected, whimsical art.”
To maintain that dream for the viewer, Malin works far in advance to plan and visualize how he will get the shot he wants.
Otherwise, he says, “you’re just petting dogs the whole time.”
Admittedly, there are many moving parts when working with animals (each one comes with a trainer and an owner, divas that they are), and while Malin’s finished product always looks effortless, working with even the most well-trained can’t account for the models that just can’t get along on set.
Cinematic, the color palettes of these works easily complement home interiors, and Malin has noticed his images hanging over the nurseries of children and above bar carts of adults.
The shots are also showcased in his children’s book “Be Our Guest,” which he published in 2018.
But what the photographer-author likes the most is taking in the reactions of the viewers themselves, who always have something to say.
“A lot of my work is very conversational,” says Malin. “I think artwork should, you know, excite people and get them to talk. That is very important to me.”