[Not] Everything's Been Done

Robert Wright

Paul Reas

As a photographer this blog, website and my general openess about technique are an attempt to keep me on my toes. I’m well aware that although some are amazed by the fact that little has been explored photographically in malls, shopping centers, etc… in fact much has been done. It was influences from Robert Adams, Martin Parr, Andreas Gursky, Paul Graham and Robert Frank among others that planted some of the seeds for my ‘shopping for pictures’ excursions. With that in mind I would hope that it is not simply what exists in front of the camera that makes the pictures interesting but more photographic concerns such as moments, form, light etc. I love coming across other photographers who have also braved the fluorescents lighting and made pictures in stores using a diverse array of techniques. A few recent (and old) discoveries include:

Paul Reas photographed in 1980’s Thatcher era Britain and little is available about him. A book exists with some of his pictures called I Can Help….Consumer Culture, I have no idea if this is a photo book or otherwise but I’d love to find out more.

Robert Wright has been making beautiful quiet and smart pictures in malls since 1991.

Alec Soth recently pointed many of us to the incredible work by Stephen DiRado. His 80’s portaits in malls done with a 8×10 camera make me drool.

When not editing Pavillion Magazine, Ravzvan Ion makes art using photographs, video and other media in Romania. His Anonymous Ideology series is made up of cnadid style photographs in european shopping centers.

Thomas Meyer isn’t like all the other german photographers but does favor a high sweeping vantage point which gives his Coop interior pictures a catherdral-esqe feel.



  1. ken
    Posted December 28, 2006 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    You well know this but photography in malls is difficult:

    1. the light is artificial, flat, often very dim or very bright.

    2. malls are generally places that are mildly depressing… mildly depressing is harder to pull off than very depressing.

    3. malls are full of logos and brands which instantly date images

    4. malls are often photography hostile

    5. malls are places where in which people are often turned off… zombified… often emotionless.

    Your photos from malls have something to say… they are relevant, but god how I often wish you would put these projects to rest, venture outside and shoot something else.

  2. Posted December 29, 2006 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Ken, your listing of the five most difficult problems for shooting in a mall are what inspired me back in the mid 80s to take on such a challenge. For close to three years I walked the corridors of an inner city mall looking for individuals, couples or groups that best represented “mall” specific archetypes. I was treated by security like a resident artist, and had permission to document anything throughout the complex. I made myself highly visible with a tripod mounted view camera, satchel full of film, and a hand held Sunpak tomahawk like flash. And quickly became familiar to mall rats, shoppers and browsers who were disarmed by my apparent casual technique. Once I established my identity, all that was left was to make successful photos. Three thousand images later, I found a few that worked for me.

  3. Posted December 29, 2006 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Ken, Do you know Sue?

  4. Posted December 29, 2006 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the mention, long time listener, first time caller…

    I would love to know personally, for each of you, what it is that drives you there, to make this work. I know the obvious stuff. But where does it go personally? I’ll tell you a story. For me, when I got interested in this, it was when I was getting serious about photography in general, and was coming off of a summer at Maine at the workshops, and we had had the drum beaten into us pretty good about methodology, the need to work in a project format, and for unknown reasons, I gravitated to the Mall to begin work.

    At the time I thought it was just fertile ground, something I knew but had not seen so much of in photography. I was also thinking retroactively, wondering what we would find dated ten, twenty years on? In other words, what would the 90’s look like? Hard to do when you are in it. A lot of times I got hijacked by the 60’s in a lot of ways, going to run-down malls, older malls, I got caught a little in nostalgia, and the black and white reinforced that, so I moved to color.

    I was also struck by the whole movement of the culture towards increasing consumption, and increasing size, and this was in 1991 before a lot of the big-box stuff had been built. But it was coming, it was clear. Where I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, there is a lot of farmland and space, and it was being cleared pretty quickly for new developments, and I could not imagine the sustainability of that vision. So I guess I was angry on some level. Still am, but I think it does not always help the pictures.

    At the time I felt I had failed largely with the black and white, and from ‘92 onwards I started doing it in color and medium format, I wanted a certain kind of formality that the black and white was not doing for me. Only recently did I go back to that work and reconsider it, and I found it to be much more personal and emotional than the color studies. The photo you clipped sort of straddles the line, it is evocative and formal at the same time.

    When I started reading Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space I really understood what was going on for me, on some level I was attuned to the meaning of the space and was trying to articulate it pictorially. So on a personal level it was functioning as self-analysis in a lot of ways. At least that is what is obvious to me now. So I did go outside to make other pictures☺. But I still go back…

  5. Posted December 29, 2006 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Robert, this is so exciting to talk to you! Thank you Brian for bringing this subject up. First, Brian, you are right, your B&W; seems deeper, more personal. Your color work borrows many of the same formal elements but seems somewhat removed and more about cataloging types of malls. Still very powerful work just the same.

    Back in 1983 I stumbled onto a project (Bell Pond) that ended up becoming a portrait of a poor community. I’m a white guy raised within a middle-class community and had not a clue how others lived or survived. I learned a lot that summer but never felt I was part of this community.

    My generation was the first to frequent malls. I grew up near the first mall on the East coast. It was where the middle-class hung out thus a place that should be easy to photograph. It seemed to me to be the next logical project. At first, I visited a number of malls in the area, but settled on one located in the center of Worcester. It had everything that malls were about in the mid 80s. I committed to the project locking in a museum show. I thought it was going to take one year, but like Ken’s listings of all of the bad things about malls as subject matter, I was determined to make successful photos that thoroughly expressed all of those points. It was depressing as all hell but I stayed with it visiting the damn place 15 to 20 hours weekly. I got to know the security, mall rats, store managers, and (get this) prostitutes and drug dealers who worked the mall. From May of 1984 to August 1986 it was my personal job outside of teaching. On August 2, 1986 I made a photo of a bunch of teens smoking. It was my last image, I had nothing else to say and never went back to that mall. Only recently did I visit its empty corridors. It is about to be demolished. Area suburban malls have destroyed it in part by thier free parking and much easier access.

    Like you Robert, I look back at these images and feel they did capture a generation. But more interestingly reflect my disdain for malls. I don’t think my mall photos are in any way condescending towards the individual but instead make comment about the persona one takes on thriving, or surviving the mall.

  6. Posted December 30, 2006 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Stephen, when I look at your work I cannot fathom how for the life of you you ever were able to get what you got, and on large format,-it seems impossible, the depth of field, the moments, it boggles my mind…

    This was part of the technical challenge that I could not resolve, I was seeing things that happen in a fraction of a second, but the whole environment was the also part of it, and just how do you render that? I can imagine you with 4×5 (8×10?) at f22 and 1 second on tri x with the potato masher flash, is that even close? And for Brian, I imagine mamiya 645, waistlevel, 400 color neg, 2.8, 1/60th or so, yet it looks less handheld than that.

    Sorry to harp on techincal stuff, but it sort of determines a lot of what follows, the look and feel, the colors, how things are drawn.

    interesting thing is that I did all the black and white pre digital, and could not print it to my satisfaction, another reason I was drawn to medium format, However, today, scanning and printing on inkjet, I can fix most of the stuff that I did not like, it is completely different.

    I think like stephen I was drawn to the older malls, the ones that seemed lost, I worked in Kingston Ontario for a while, several low-traffic malls, it kind of took the consumer message and turned it upside down, but it was very hard to work there, I had no permission, it was surreptitious, and plus, I was timid. I am sort of drawn to that, however the nostalgia worries me, I think the more current tone of Brian’s work is probably more where I would like to be. But you can only make your own pictures you know?

  7. Posted December 30, 2006 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Robert, for the record I used a beat up Burke and James or Orbit (red bellows) monorail 4×5 camera for Bell Pond and Mall. (Most everything that followed after 1986 was shot with an 8×10) I always used the same lens, a 90mm f6,8 Schneider Angulon, sawed off half of my monorail to shorten the camera to commit to that lens. The lens mount was made out of matboard painted black. It never leaked.

    Shooting in the mall, all my exposures were all under a 10th of a second, many more like 1/2 sec. I hardly synced my flash to the camera and instead hit the test button to fire it off. This gave me the freedom to place the flash wherever in a very short period of time. I also made a softbox extension out of cardboard and tinfoil that softened my light. And yes, everything was F22 up to 12 feet away. And of course I used Tri-x. I still use Tri-x. Hell, these days I use flashbulbs. No kidding and all of my dinner images are flashed using the large Number 22, 11 or smaller number 25s.

    I was making portraits in the mall. I had a captured audience, and did a lot of talking and listening before I popped off a few shots. Sometimes I would demonstrate to my subjects what a lens at a half second sounds like, in order for them to relax and stay still. Of course the rest of the mall was in motion, but that added to the dizzy feeling of the place. I’m going to e-mail you an image of self-portrait I made from the Bell Pond Series giving you an idea how I work.

  8. Posted December 31, 2006 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    Paul Reas also published a book ‘flogging a dead horse’ isbn 0 948797 525 in 1992 published by Cornerhouse. It has some of the pics from portfolio 1 from his website, but much more. There are copies of this and the book you mention on the UK amazon site

  9. Posted December 31, 2006 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Stephen, Robert,
    Sorry for the late reply. Holiday and show madness.
    For the moment I’ll say I’m using a 645 with 800 speed film. All candid. I’m lucky if I get 1/60. Mostly 1/15 at 5.6.
    Sometimes I do bring a 4×5 and for that use 160 tungsten neg film. Most all the Thrift stuff is with permission of the store so I can take my time. 15min exposures. All available light.
    As for motivation…more soon.

  10. JM Colberg
    Posted January 1, 2007 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    This is a bit out of place – given the preceding discussion – but it might be interesting anyway. I remember a long time ago (I’m using internet time here, in reality it’s only about five years ago or so) I talked to Michael Jacobson-Hardy who had done some interesting projects on workers in old factories and maximum-security prisons. He told me he wanted to do a series on malls next, and he said he was asking mall owners for permission to do so officially. As it turns out, it was easier to get access and permission to work in maximum security prisons than in malls. And I don’t know whether he got around to shooting his series.

  11. Posted January 1, 2007 at 1:38 pm | Permalink


    In my case, I set up a meeting with the owners of the mall, showing them examples of my work. This eased any suspicions, and opened the door for me to have total access to the place. This did not include any rights to photograph inside individual stores owned by corporations. Some smaller shops had independent owners, so I had the luxury to ask them directly for permission. I did sign a contract with the management of the mall stating they had to sign off on the final portfolio. To assure that my work was not in jeopardy, from time to time met with management to show my progress. They were never totally pleased with the work, and wanted to seeing smiling faces and special events. I told them I was far more interested in the daily traffic flow and without the fanfare. They could not deny the fact that my work was capturing this and signed off at the end of the project.

  12. Posted January 1, 2007 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    For a while I relied on the old “it is easier to be forgiven than it is to get permission.” Some of the work was done on assignment also for Fortune, the editors there who are all the the NY Times now knew of my interersts and would throw me the retail bone once and a while.
    There is an underground mall in Toronto, really just a series of interconnected below-ground retail spaces that makes it possible to walk indoors many city blocks. I remember in the 90’s when some of the spaces finally got connected together, you could walk from Union Station almost all the way to Bloor or something like that. There was a little bit of a controversy at the time over the legal status of this space, in a sense it was supplanting the street as a thoroughfare, (especially in winter) and a question was raised about free speech in this area, obviously it was private property but it was a public area too. No doubt there would be no way to stage a demonstration or exercise any civil liberties there. This worried me at the time, not that I am overtly political, but artistic freedoms are also part of this. Basically you have a place with controlled access that is increasingly a public gathering place. So what does that do to/for the public good? Now that is an “idea” but I don’t know if I ever made a picture directly addressing that. The closest was after September 11 and all the advertisers replaced their kiosk signs with patriotic posters. Heartfelt but essentially sanctioned propaganda. It was just a movement where all public expressions became narrowed to the unity message. And eventually that message was replaced with the “shop” message which is what we were told to do to win the war. Full circle.

  13. Posted January 1, 2007 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Uh, a moot discussion, the rules have all changed since 911. My students are confronted all the time when photographing in public places. For the past six years or so I have been photographing on a bridge where folks, mostly kids, jump into the waters below. I carry with me a booklet of photos, examples to show people, particularly parents, what I do. This sampler has saved my hide many times over. last summer Les Krims http://www.leskrims.com/ tried to photograph at that bridge, but was run off by a parent who thought he was a suspicious character. Les was caught completely off guard and quickly left the bridge uneasy. The funny side of this story, I know these people have no idea what kind of photos Krims made in the past, or makes these days.

  14. Posted January 1, 2007 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Brian, I’m going to jump on the technical bandwagon here and ask, do you know that Fuji has eliminated 160 NPL from their line? They replaced it with a 64T. When the Fuji rep. here told me that I was very sad.

    When I started shooting sheet film and discovered the 160 I was thrilled at the shorter exposure times. Now it’s back to Kodak 100T.

  15. Posted January 1, 2007 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Yes I did see that. Not a good thing. I have a small supply of 4×5 Fuji NPL but will also have to go for the 100T

  16. scott
    Posted January 5, 2007 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Did you see Andrew Miksys’ work in the Acropolis mall in Lithuania?
    It’s beautiful. As all of his work is…

  17. Posted September 4, 2008 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Hello Brian. A friend of mine forwarded your blog in which you mentioned my work and displayed an image. It would be nice to hear from you and maybe I can answer some of your questions? Like yourself I am also a photographer and teacher. I teach Documentary Photography at the University Of Wales Newport. It would be good to hear from you. If you want to respond please use paul.reas@newport.ac.uk


    Paul Reas

Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.