His work has taken him to hotspots of conflict all around the globe including Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Liberia, Iraq, Kosovo and the Persian Gulf as well as to the heart of Olympic and FEI sport. Award-winning photographer, Jim Hollander, has worked for UPI and Reuters, and was appointed Staff Photographer for EPA covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories in 2003. He has seen a lot in his 71 years.
But one of the most treasured experiences of his exciting lifetime is a 1,000-kilometre ride across Spain that he undertook back in 1973. It took four weeks to cross from Pizarra to Pamplona, and it epitomises the adventurous spirit of an extraordinarily creative family.
Much of the magical story is driven by the character and energy of Jim’s father, Gino Hollander, a decorated WW2 veteran who worked alongside his second wife Barbi as a film-maker before deciding to become a painter. Yes, just like that….
“It was his way, he wanted to be an artist so he made himself one. His philosophy was that if you want to do something and you work at it you’ll get good at it, so you should always do what you want to do. He had a cavalier way of enjoying life to the fullest and he imparted that to the rest of us”, says the American-born photographer. Clearly Gino’s work ethic wasn’t lost on his children. “It wasn’t easy for me to become a photographer but I wanted to do it and I stuck with it and eventually got a break. There were plenty of hard knocks along the way, but I didn’t give up!”, Jim adds.
Gino became a leading light of the abstract expressionism movement of the 1960s and opened a gallery in Greenwich Village, New York. Then a year later he suddenly decided to uproot his entire family and move to Spain. “He packed up three young kids, a couple of dogs, a cat and his wife and took a boat to Europe. While the boat was docked in Gibraltar he visited Torremolinos where he met a real-estate developer who took him to a 25-room house that came with a gardener, a cook and a maid - all for $120 a month - and he decided to take it!”, Jim explains. Thus a Spanish love-affair began that lasted 30 years for his father and continues to this day for Jim himself.
He was just 12 years old when he visited the family in Spain for the first time in 1963. And it was 10 years later that Jim came up with the idea of the long-distance ride. Gino wasn’t keen on the idea to begin with however. “My father and the rest of the family had been on several horse trips from Malaga to Seville so locally we were known as a horse family. But it was just three years after my brother Marc died in an accident, and Dad said it wasn’t the right time for him”, Jim explains.
Marc, four years his senior, was a trainee photographer and the one who inspired Jim’s fascination with the camera lens.
With no great enthusiasm coming from the rest of the family Jim invited a friend, Peter Whitehead, to join him instead. “He was a dairy farmer from Vermont who never sat on a horse before, but when he showed up we rode for a month and he picked it up quickly. We bought supplies and equipment and spent hours looking through maps and making our plans”, Jim explains. In the end the lure of the proposed adventure proved too much for Gino and the rest of the crew, and six riders set out on 16th May 1973 while Jim’s stepmother, Barbi, followed in a Volkswagen Camper “with pots and pans and sleeping bags and food for the horses”.
Gino’s horse was Marejada, Jim rode Flamenca and Peter was partnered with Alexi. Jim’s sisters, Lise who was 16 years old and Siri who was 14, rode Gaspacho and Yael while his younger brother Scott, aged just 11, rode an un-named mare. They set out in appalling weather conditions, torrential rain creating a sea of mud, but the trip was underway at last. And what an adventure it was.
Armed with a diary, a Leica M5 camera and rolls of film, Jim kept a record of the extraordinary journey. He didn’t know it at the time, but it would mark the beginning of the documentary photography career that he would follow for the rest of his life.
Inched across Spain
“We basically took off with a Firestone map of Spain in pouring rain and day by day inched across Spain, almost to the French border. We spent three weeks in the saddle with about a week of downtime drying ourselves out and resting the horses.” It was during the final years of the Franco era, and the country they passed through was very different to today.
“We rode through the back country and saw places most tourists would never get to see. Some of the towns don’t exist anymore because so many rural farmers moved to the cities and now they are dead towns. We camped out almost every night, cooking food with the horses tied up close by, we lived like cowboys and in the mornings we would break camp and ride north, asking a farmer how to get to the next village. He’d tell us to follow that path, go as far as the big olive tree and then turn right. I don’t know if you could that today in Spain because there are so many more fences. The people are still really hospitable but there are less farmers and more private land with ‘no trespassing’ signs”, Jim explains.
After three weeks together some stresses began to develop amongst the group, “so Peter and I broke off and we did the last week with just the two of us, so we arrived in Pamplona before the rest. That last week was really exciting, we rode for hours, with nowhere to sleep and got caught in the rain again. But there was a great sense of achievement at the end”, he says.
And when they all got together again the stress was gone, and it was time to celebrate.
Jim continued riding until his father left Spain in 1991 and went back to America. Gino passed away four years ago at the age of 92, and was painting until the day he died.
The rest of the family also eventually returned to the US while Jim lives in Jerusalem, Israel.
“Siri is a great horsewoman and owns a few horses in New Mexico. She’s a very successful sculptress and specialises in horse sculptures. And Scott is an amazing rider as well. He’s 12 years younger than me and works as a grip in the movie business, makes commercials and is a rock climber and skier. The three of us are very creative”, Jim says.
In recent years Jim’s connection with horses has been mostly from behind the lens, covering the equestrian events at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, London in 2012 and Rio in 2016. He was commissioned by the FEI for the Final of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ series in Barcelona on three occasions and the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final in Paris in 2018 and was looking forward to returning to Barcelona in 2020 until the pandemic got in the way.
He says he has enjoyed capturing the great rivalry between Dressage riders Isabell Werth from Germany and America’s Laura Graves and that his Jumping hero is Great Britain’s Nick Skelton. He loves “shooting” horses - “when you are close with a long lens and you can see the horse’s muscles ripple and smell their sweat it all speaks about the essence of the sport”, he says.
He believes he owes a lot of his success to the experience gained on what the family still describe to this day as “the Hollander horse trip”. Using his diary and photos, in 1993 Jim published “From Pizarra to Pamplona - Across Spain on Horseback” to recall it in all its glory. The book is as much a homage to his late father as the story of a shared experience, and it captures a moment in time when horses and people could still roam the Spanish countryside in a way that would be impossible today.
In the epilogue is an extract from Barbi’s own book “Tapestry” written in 2008 in which she writes….. “mile after mile, day after day, we traveled with the soft clop, clop of horses’ hooves beating out its mesmerizing rhythm; ever-changing cloudscapes, flights of birds, past orange grove and olive grove, fields of tender, pale, new green barley struggling up in threadbare fields, then mile upon mile of lovingly-tended grape vines. Off in the distance a sleepy village - always off in the distance…..No supermercados here. No McDonald’s. This forgotten land, smouldering under the luminous Iberian sun, a shabby remnant of a proud past still living in another century, still going on about its daily life, unchanged, these many years”.
No wonder Jim treasures the memories……