Gray Malin’s visions of vintage Aspen
IF YOU GO …
What: Gray Malin in Aspen
Where: The Living Room at The Little Nell
When: Through Feb. 17
More info: Prints on sale at graymalin.com beginning at $329 (10 percent of sales go to nonprofit climate action group Protect Our Winters)
Nobody actually looks quite as good and as casually glamorous as the characters in Gray Malin’s new series of Aspen photos. And that’s kind of the point of this vintage fantasy world.
His series “Gray Malin in Aspen,” which opened in late January at The Little Nell, captures the way you feel — or wish you could feel — on a ski trip. In your actual vacation photos there are gaper gaps and clownish swaths of sunscreen, snotty noses and a bit of terror in the eyes at the top of a ski run. In Malin’s world, it’s all throwback alpine elegance and timeless joy.
Malin, the famed Los Angeles-based fine art photographer, created the 29-part series during a whirlwind series of on-location shoots early this winter. Over six days, he and a creative team of 24 (plus two dogs) hopped between locations like the Buckhorn Cabin and Lift 1A on Aspen Mountain, Cloud Nine Bistro on Aspen Highlands, the private airport at Sardy Field and, of course, the entrance of The Little Nell hotel, which commissioned the project.
At each, Malin would set a vintage scene and costume his models in gear and apparel, then shoot his models un-posed.
Malin started making a name for himself a decade ago with his dreamy aerial shots of beaches, taken from door-less helicopters (he is also the eye behind the cheeky portraits of llamas and other animals clothed in balloons you’ve likely seen on Instagram). The beaches resonated with collectors and critics, capturing what Malin calls the “blank canvas” of sand and water. He thought ski areas might have a similar effect on viewers.
A childhood friend from Dallas encouraged him to shoot Aspen and he did over a series of projects between 2011 and 2015. The elegant splendor of his mountain shots clicked with collectors here.
“There was this authentic connection between my work’s audience and Aspen,” he recalled before the exhibition opening at the Nell. “So I started to think more about a bigger project here. There is no doubt that the collectors of my work love coming to Aspen, so this is a match made in heaven.”
The Nell approached Malin last year as it was planning its nostalgia-heavy programming for its 30th anniversary 2019-20 winter. He came to Aspen in April 2019, on the tail end of ski season, and strapped on his skis to scout on-mountain locations.
From there, it was a herculean task to procure the just-right vintage boots, skis, pants, jackets, scarves, hats and all. For the shoots, Malin dressed all of the models himself, selecting their rented clothes and gear from the massive cache at Carbondale’s Vintage Ski World along with some eBay purchases.
For a shot of two women riding Lift 1A, Malin found himself burrowed into a snowy ditch under the lift line so he could get the perfectly angled head-on shot.
These images are instantly, and purposefully, iconic — they’re likely to soon join Walter Niedermayr’s crowded and cloudy “Aspen Series” and Ferenc Berko’s 1940s documentary photos as some of the most seen and most recognizable images of Aspen hanging in Aspen.
The Nell, owned by Aspen Skiing Co., could provide the kind of access and logistics that Malin normally has to fight and claw and pay for. Here, Skico could offer snowcats and staff to support the project, and unfettered freedom to roam the ski areas and lifts.
Along with being one of his most complex productions, it’s the quickest turnaround Malin has ever had for a project.
“Talk about a miracle,” a relieved Malin said.
This new series is Malin’s fourth nostalgia-based shoot, following productions with similar throwback mission at luxury locales like the Beverly Hills Hotel and The Breakers in Palm Beach.
The inspiration for this body of work came from Malin’s love for his grandparents’ travel photos, dating roughly to the era of casual glamour when people dressed up on planes and opted for printed ski sweaters and sunglasses over Gore-Tex, helmets and spherically lensed goggles.
Instead of pinpointing an exact era or year, he landed in a sort of nostalgic fantasy that takes its style cues from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.
Seeing 12 of his prints hanging in The Living Room bar at the Nell, an embodiment of 21st-century alpine lifestyle glamor, created a sort of magic for Malin.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Malin said. “It’s one thing to be editing on a screen, but when you see it framed — especially in an elevated space like The Living Room — it’s all worth it, the blood, pain, tears, sweat, the snow.”
Ironically, Malin himself hadn’t much experienced the cosmopolitan aspects of Aspen before teaming with the Nell for this shoot. His prior visits had been more rugged, focused skiing and the outdoors.
“It wasn’t until I started doing this project that I got a taste for the more boujee side of Aspen,” he said. “You spend eight nights in the Nell and you see a different side of Aspen.”
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April has been decreed, for the first time, as “Sonoma County Wine Month” by the vintners and it is a righteous idea, one that should have legs long into the future.