Nov. 14, 2013 at 4:59 PM ET
When filmmaker Michael Galinsky went looking in a desk drawer one day in 2010, he'd all but forgotten about a series of photographs he'd taken in malls across America back in 1989.
What he found was a time capsule that has since carried people around the country on a wave of nostalgia, as they relive the 80's through his photos — even finding themselves or loved ones in his images.
Galinsky, who shot the photos as a freshman at NYU, saw them go viral that year after posting them online, and was able to raise $13,000 on Kickstarter to publish the images as a book.
“It was pretty shocking,” Galinsky told TODAY.com of the interest in his photos. “It was clearly striking a nerve with people.”
Released late last month, his book "Malls Across America" is already backlogged on Amazon, leading the photos to once again burn up the Internet.
And in the process, something strange has happened that really shocked Galinsky: readers started to identify the people in the photos.
"So your gonna think this sounds crazy but im sooo sure that im the guy in picture 11 on the article," Jamie Rutina wrote in a message Galinsky shared with TODAY.com. "You cant see my face cuz im looking down at something, but I know its me, the hair is mine, the coat, the stance/mannerism. I was 20 yrs old then."
“The 'jock' on the left is my uncle! Number 62,” wrote another fan, after spotting a picture posted on Facebook.
Another man recognized his father in one of Galinsky’s photos, just hours after returning from his father’s memorial service.
"That photo...is of my parents," David Walczak wrote, in an email Galinsky shared with TODAY.com, of a photo of a couple on an escalator. "I recognized them as soon as I saw it. The really shocking thing is we had my father’s memorial on November 7th, and visited his grave on the 8th...It really feels like my Father chose this vehicle to let my family know he is in a good place."
“It’s really powerful to see yourself randomly in that way. It’s shocking,” Galinsky says, of people who see themselves or people they know in his photos.
And while he has confirmed some of the subjects, he says that most times people mistakenly see themselves, seduced by the casual quality of the film and the forgotten moments he haphazardly captured. “The photos really do feel, for everybody, like their family photos,” he explains. “Everybody does see themselves in it.”
The project began when Galinsky happened upon a Long Island Mall with a college girlfriend and found inspiration for a color photography class project. “We walked in and I said, ‘This is the project.’ It was this vibrant, crazy, public space filled with interesting people, and colors, and light,” he remembers.
Later that year, with encouragement from his photography professor, Galinsky set out with a friend and his cheap Nikon FG-20 on a cross-country road trip and captured life in 15 different malls.
He shot covertly, without his subjects' knowledge, inspired by street photographers like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand.
“Even though there were a lot of big personalities and big colors I wasn't setting out to make fun of anybody,” he says. “I think that’s why it’s working so well [now], because it just feels of the time rather than about the time.”
Galinsky tried to exhibit the photos, but their amateur quality meant he only got one chance to display them—at a rock show—before they were lost to a box. He turned his focus to his band, Sleepyhead, and eventually his career as a documentary filmmaker.
“For me it was always intended as a book but I wasn’t able to do it for 25 years,” he says, compares the work to folk art. “In 25 years it accrues meaning with time’s passage.”
After they spread like wildfire, Galinsky says he stopped feeling ownership over the photos, and that they're now part of the Internet's DNA.
“Once they went viral they really are no longer mine in the same way,” he admits. “They have just become part of the discussion. They’ve become something that is identified with that time frame.”