Hollis concludes 27-year career as university photographer
Eight chancellors. More than 50 commencement ceremonies. And more than 130,000 individual Pirates. After 27 years documenting the life and times of East Carolina University, university photographer Cliff Hollis is retiring at the end of June.
Hollis said he set his sights on photography as a kid after seeing a news photo of an oil derrick in Alaska.
“In my third-grade mind, someone had to go take that photo, and I thought that would be a cool job,” he said. “So from the third grade on, I did my best to decipher what it meant to be a photographer.”
In high school, he took photos for his hometown newspaper, The Enterprise in Williamston. After stints at the Washington (N.C.) Daily News, the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, the Daily Independent in Kannapolis and Greenville’s Daily Reflector, he took a job at ECU in 1996. He had gotten married and had two stepchildren, so the more regular schedule of the university role was a draw.
“We were still shooting film when I got here,” he said.
What is now an office in ECU’s Howard House, the home of ECU News Services, was a photo studio, and the conference room was a darkroom with a multiple enlarger setup, he said. “And the little closet in the conference room was where we loaded the film and processed it. You wouldn’t ever know that walking in the house today.”
Hollis and his colleague at the time, Tony Rumple, were forward-thinking and soon began to transition to digital photography as a cost-saving effort. The equipment has come a long way since then, Hollis said. He has colleagues now who have never shot on film.
Instead of publishing photos and stories on the ECU website or sharing them on social media, university news was printed. At one point there were as many as 13 print publications produced by University Communications, Hollis said. Photography has afforded him the opportunity for many memorable experiences, from a space shuttle launch and ECU’s 1992 Peach Bowl victory (as a photographer for the Daily Reflector) to on-campus presidential visits and a trip to Chernobyl while working for ECU.
“A radiation safety class was visiting the site and offered to take me,” he said. “So I saw the Ferris wheel and just the ghost town. There’s a photo that I took of a red rose in front of the Ferris wheel in Prypiat (Ukraine). It was just a surreal experience.”
“I love being put into the middle of an uncontrollable situation and being asked to get something meaningful from that,” Hollis said.
His photo of a dental school graduate lifting his brother into the air at a spring commencement ceremony earned him a first-place award in 2021 in the University Photographers’ Association of America’s annual photo contest. He has also been recognized with ECU’s Centennial Award for Excellence in leadership and the staff senate’s Outstanding Staff Award.
“That was totally unplanned,” he said of the graduation photo. “I just happened to be at the right place, being aware of my surroundings. And it really rejuvenated me and reminded me of why I’m in the business and love what I do.”
Sometimes there were unexpected masterpieces, such as a shot of Cookie Monster in a crowd of students.
“There was a fire alarm at 8 a.m.,” said Hollis. “I walked over, not expecting anything to come of it. And thankfully it wasn’t a real fire. But it was Halloween. And so I’m just looking over the crowd, and there’s Cookie Monster on his cell phone, telling his family or somebody that he’s OK.”
“ECU will lose an unsung but vitally important member of the community when Cliff Hollis retires,” said Chancellor Emeritus Steve Ballard. “I enjoyed working with Cliff for 19 years — a man of great competence, professional demeanor and a sense of humor that aided his interactions throughout his tenure.”
Former colleague Jay Clark said Hollis brought a “newsman attitude” and an ethical approach to every photo assignment.
“If you hear him begin a sentence with, ‘Look, dude,’ you know you are about to receive some wisdom, so be ready to take notes,” Clark said.
Hollis’ supervisor Jamie Smith, director of media relations and reputation management, said he has captured the spirit of ECU through the lens of his camera.
“His dedication and artistic vision have etched the university’s history into the hearts and minds of everyone who has had the privilege to see his work,” she said. “In addition to the big moments that mark ECU’s milestones, it is the smaller, often unnoticed photographs that truly embody the life and culture that thrives at ECU. From the quiet student studying in the library to the contagious laughter at Barefoot on the Mall, Cliff has captured the moments that make ECU a special place.”
Come July, Hollis plans to move to Durham to be closer to family and will continue his photography career in the real estate industry. He also hopes to resume mission work; past trips have taken him to Africa and Ukraine.
Video manager Reed Wolfley said Hollis’ care for others comes through in everything he does.
“Cliff often says, ‘You can be better than me, but you’re not going to outwork me,’” Wolfley said. “That mindset of hard work and service — caring for anyone within his reach — is infused into his way of life. I’ve witnessed firsthand Cliff change flat tires, buy gas or jump a battery for stranded strangers, cut down a tree, drive a truck across the country, and simply offer a prayer for someone going through a hard time.”
Hollis, looking back on earlier photos of Greenville and ECU, noted how much the campus has grown and changed over time. He has photos that predate the Sonic Plaza and the Science and Technology Building, and he documented the installation of the Cupola. He took pictures of campus from the third floor of the Bate Building when it was under construction.
“The fountain was smaller and you could drive through campus from Fifth Street to Tenth,” he said. “And we used to walk to Wendy’s where the student center is now.”
“I have appreciated the opportunity that ECU has given me,” Hollis said. “And, you know, ECU has really been a good place to work, and I thoroughly love the people that I work with.”
From the joy of student events and the tension of campus protests to the devastation of hurricanes and tropical storms — not to mention a lot of group photos and handshakes — Hollis has been on the scene, capturing and archiving the university’s history. And he has the photos to prove it.