HOLLIS DUNCAN: Photographer and Designer

In the life of a fanzine, making things, going to school or just standing in line you get a chance to meet people doing beautiful things. Via email we started to chat with Mr. Hollis Duncan about photography, his photography + design and bits of life. His name rings a bell to us in a “sounds like a character in a John Irving novel” or “if we went to the same art school I bet we would have been friends” kind of way.

We asked Hollis to send us a few photographs, answer a few questions. He makes his time in Europe and we are hoping to work with this talented photographer soon. More Brilliance Here and Here. So in no particular order here are some questions and answers and a small edit of Hollis Duncan’s work.

Who are you?

HOLLIS: I am a fish taco addict and exuberant fan of Mexican Coke in glass bottles. When not scarfing down fresh cilantro, I design book covers. One of my career goals is to do lots of little things. So in addition to graphic design, I’m a freelance photographer specializing in cycling. In January, I went on self-assignment to Belgium’s national cyclocross championships and this summer I had a blast shooting Red Hook Crit Barcelona. I would like to shoot more projects such as a cross race in the Czech Republic or a domestic team training camp. On two wheels, I’m a grassroots cyclocross racer with a nose for lunch. 

TSH: Where did you grow up?

HOLLIS: My dad was in the Navy so we moved about every four years. I was born at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia and went to high school in Georgia. We lived in Monterrey, California as well as Naples, Italy. I was a paperboy growing up in Virginia Beach, deft at tossing the Virginian-Pilot/Ledger-Star over my head whilst pedaling a burly, red Worksman beach cruiser. We moved to South Georgia in summer before eighth grade. My first concert was supposed to be Indigo Girls opening for R.E.M.’s Green tour but I had basketball practice. Senior year we moved to a suburb of Atlanta and I went to college in Sewanee, Tennessee. I didn’t realize how Southern I was until I moved to New York right after design school.

TSH: How did you end up in Barcelona?

HOLLIS: My wife is from Santiago de Compostela. I proposed in her hometown with a seashell I found on the beach after walking the Camino de Santiago, 810 kilometers over 31 days, from Pamplona to Finisterre. We were married in Santiago on August 5, 2005. The next morning I got an email asking if I was interested in a design internship on Paula Scher’s team at Pentagram New York. I called to accept it from a pay phone on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro on our honeymoon. So when we got back to the States we did the unthinkable as newlyweds and I moved to New York while my wife stayed in Atlanta to honor her teaching contract. Our friends thought we were out of our minds, but our parents were supportive and acted like no sweat.

Hollis: New York was the greatest thing that ever happened as far as graphic design. I learned more in four years working in Manhattan than I would have in 10 years elsewhere. The next chapter in our life was family but I didn’t feel comfortable having that conversation in New York. So we talked about moving to Spain since we’d been living together in the US for a decade. My career was mobile and I always thought of New York as a steppingstone to Europe, plus Spain seemed like the proverbial road less traveled and made sense for us to start a family. We sent my wife’s résumé to five of six American schools in country including one on the Canary Islands. The American School of Barcelona was the only school we heard from and the director offered my wife, Luisa, a job over the phone. We got lucky and have two kids now.

TSH: Why bikes and not horses?

HOLLIS: I’ll probably rent Seabiscuit after saying this, but shoot what you love. I ran cross country in high school and college and was always passionate about trail running. Cyclocross is like cross country with a bike. When I hop on my cross bike it feels like returning to my roots, which is how my cyclocross bug grew and I started racing.

I had butterflies in my stomach on my way to the Belgian cyclocross championships. My first time in Belgium, I walked seven kilometers from Mol to Zilvermeer because there was no bus service to the race and taxis cost an arm and a leg in Flanders apparently. A nice lady passed me on a bicycle. She asked where I was walking, smiled, and said I had strong legs. As I got closer, the race announcer’s voice broke through the canopy of Scots pines in a cacophony of deafening Dutch. I started skipping as shards of Flemish fell through the air like pine needles; it was just like the choppy Sporza feeds on steephill.tv but happening in real life! I fed off this adrenaline both days while shooting. Arriving on foot is the only way I can picture it now for the crescendo I just described was cyclocross music to my ears and the perfect way to arrive to the Belgian national championships.

TSH: Name your favorite photographer?

HOLLIS: Benjamin Broad. I worked for Ben’s parents while living in Tappahannock, Virginia where I met Luisa. His mom was headmistress of St. Margaret’s School and his dad owned a company called Digital Wisdom that sold maps.

Ben was a brainy free spirit. His manner was gentle. Globetrotting was his lifestyle for several years. He would buy a dirt cheap Specialized with entry-level components; load it with panniers, and jet off to the Himalayas. When he ran out of money or his bike died, he would return and promptly start working to hoard cash for his next adventure. He packed a Mamiya 7II, a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod, film, clothes, and that was about it.

Periodically Ben would send updates that he was in Ulan Bator and needed money. His dad flew over to meet him once. Mostly I remember Ben’s homecomings and gawking at the power and arresting beauty of his images. I will never forget holding his 20 x 24” prints and looking directly into the eyes of intimate strangers, Tibetan or Nepalese siblings sharing a fixed stare or a Mongolian dude holding a cigarette to his eye. Ben had a knack for travel and photography plus a disarming smile. He captured the soul of his subjects in their natural landscape sans gimmicks. His portfolio from those epic trips is a benchmark. Ben had no formal photography training, just a scruffy kid living the dream.

TSH: What is more important in your photographs symmetry or asymmetry?

HOLLIS: While I prefer asymmetry aesthetically some of the most striking images I’ve seen play off a symmetrical grid. Asymmetry is something I strive for in design. Juxtaposition of elements creates energy and tension, which yields dynamic layouts. When I’m shooting at a race, I don’t think about symmetry versus asymmetry as consciously as I do when I’m designing on the computer. Photography, when composing a shot rapidly, doesn’t afford the opportunity to play like design. Photographs happen in fractions of a second. Paula Scher used to tell her portfolio class at SVA, “It could look good. It could look like shit.” The key is to press the shutter or you’ll never know.