Mackenzie Duncan is a talented photographer who pretty much always has had a nomadic lifestyle! Currently living on the West Coast, he works with great brands that fit his day to day life. See how he’s able to make a living and enjoy life to the fullest!
What freedom vessel are you driving and does it have a name?
The story of my freedom vessel comes first with the story of another freedom vessel, one which I came to love and live in as if she were my own this past year. At the beginning of 2015 I reached out to my friend Drew in Toronto to see if he wanted to head to the East Coast on a cold water surf trip. He got back to me and invited me on a trip he already had planned down to Baja in his ’86 Westy, Delilah. Three weeks later I packed up my stuff, flew out west and met Drew just South of LA. I had no idea I was getting so much more than just a surf trip. We ended up spending three weeks in the Baja. Surfing, exploring, driving down roads we probably shouldn’t have, snapping photos, writing journals and generally having a grand time. Naturally I fell in love with Vanlife, and couldn’t believe Drew’s generosity and kindess when he offered to lend me Delilah while he went off tree planting in British Columbia. A month later and Drew dropped her at my parents house on Vancouver Island. I picked her up, and road tripped her down South in May. All the way down highway one- stopping in Washington and Oregon along the way. It was just over a week of surfing, hiking, soaking in natural hot springs, and sharing tea and oatmeal with strangers who were to become friends.
I eventually ended up in LA where I spent 4 months living both part-time and full-time in the van. Basically splitting my time between a friends spot in Venice, and vanlifing up in Malibu surfing or hiking and cooking up in the local mountain ranges for days on end.
Eventually I returned Delilah to Drew in September of this past year and spent the Fall without a van. I was on the mend from a fractured vertebrae (a whole ‘nother story Delilah was there for, involving the ocean and a pretty gnarly wave). I spent a lot of days sitting searching for my freedom vessel, and am please to announce I just bought my yet to be named-’82 Diesel Vanagon! I’m so excited, and will be busy the next few months building it out to a bio-diesel camper which I can take on adventures with Drew and Delilah and all our other van friends!
You left your hometown many years ago to pursue your dreams, how did that happen?
Well, I went to high school away from home and met a lot of people from all over who had a very different mentality than a lot of the folks I grew up with. They came from all sorts of backgrounds and places and it started to open up my eyes a bit to travel. Near the end of my Grade 12 year (I was a bit of an art nerd) my art teacher took us on a tour of a few schools in Vancouver to sort of see what the next steps could be. I knew I didn’t want to do another four years of school as I’d had a hard enough time getting through high school so I opted for a 12 month diploma studying design and film at Vancouver Film School. From there I moved to Montreal and did a bunch of graphic design work. During this time I got the travel bug, saved up a small sum of money and flew down to Central America to live on the beach for six months and learn to surf. This gave me a ton of time to think and figure out what I wanted to do next, which led me into photography.
When I returned I started assisting a handful of photographers between Montreal and Toronto before opening my first studio in Toronto. I then spent the next 8 years between Toronto, Montreal and NYC pursuing fashion photography, while also opening a furniture business with a childhood best friend- JM & Sons, before moving out to LA a year ago. It’s been quite a journey and it’s really taught me a lot. I wouldn’t change a thing. I am so happy to be back near the ocean and spending more time in nature, and have been focusing my photography towards more lifestyle than fashion so I can keep getting more opportunities to get even more of that moving forward!
Is it hard to find clients while on the road? How do you connect with new brands and new clients ?
Over the last 8-10 years of assisting, shooting, traveling and living between a handful of different cities I’ve met a whole bunch of amazing people that I’ve kept in touch with. We’ve all grown as creatives in our own ways and some have become successful Art Directors who I have ended up working with, or designers, or marketers. I’ve found that to be the most important thing- just keeping in touch with the people you respect and people who’s work you respect. The opportunity may seem to take a long time but eventually your creative paths will cross and you’ll get to the opportunity work together. Another way I connect with new brands and clients is sort of a mix of social media, word of mouth, self promotion etc. I’ve started to reach out to a bunch of brands that I respect and I’m always amazed at how open they are to work with new people if your work and their brand fit together.
How do you manage to protect your equipment and your datas?
Equipment is tricky to protect. I do my best to under dress my bags and often cover my cameras in black grip tape so they don’t look fancy and expensive. I also make sure everything is insured properly, just in case.
As for data, I carry multiple backups and spread them around to different places as well as storing all of my final images (RAW, TIFF and JPG) on Google Drive so they are accessible from anywhere and relatively safe.
Can you show us 3 of your favorite pictures you shot recently?
I was lucky enough to shoot this image out on the west coast of Vancouver Island at a place called Sombrio. I spend a few days out there with a good friend of mine, Phillipe. Phillipe lives in an E-350 in California these days but happened to be up in Vancouver for a job so I had the opportunity to show him around where I grew up, in the same truck I grew up driving, an ’82 Land Cruiser. I got to shoot him with a board I made at Shaper Studios Vancouver, so the images are a great collaboration between hard work, good friends, and a great brand. We had one of those classic down pour days that happen out here on the west coast of Canada. Early in the morning we went down to the beach and for an hour or so the rain stopped and the mist was lifting off the beach just long enough to capture some beautiful images. It really was a bit of a magical day really.
I snapped this shot on the second night of that trip down to Baja I referenced earlier in Drew’s van Delilah. We had kind of followed our intuition along these dirt roads and ended up next to this empty beach with no one around. We surfed for hours and eventually came back to the van exhausted and made some dinner. Drew was just sitting on the stoop of the van as we relaxed before bed. There are some great memories attached to that image.
This was the last shot of a campaign I shot for a denim brand in LA called Crawford Denim. We’d been shooting on the beach up in Malibu for most of the day and decided to do a few shots on the vintage bikes we had. It was great because we were able to catch the sun at that perfect spot because I was shooting from the Jeep with no top. We only had a short section of highway where the sun spilled over and to me it captures all of what California can be.
Can you share with us a great parking spot you often go to?
There is this one spot sort of near the North end of Malibu up Decker Canyon Road. I wish I could remember all the other little roads you turn off onto. I found it one night with my girlfriend and we’ve been back a handful of times in her van, or in Delilah when I still had her. Sometimes bringing friends but more often heading up there, just the two of us. It’s just sort of hidden behind this hill and you get this view of all the Santa Monica Mountain ranges and the sun sets right there above all the long grasses. It’s so peaceful and quiet and it’s only 40 minutes away from LA, without traffic of course. Conveniently enough at the bottom of the hill is a break called Zeros, which is one of my favourite breaks in Malibu.
What is the project you’re working on now?
I’ve got a few things but the next major thing is a Van Life Cookbook. I’ve teamed up with a great crew of people and we’re putting together a cookbook based around healthy, simple cooking with locally sourced produce, sort of based around the west coast for now. We plan to do some roadtrips, cooking on a two burner stove or over the camp fire and I think putting all that together with some really talented people which should be a lot of fun!
It’ll be coming out later this spring, hopefully in time for summer van lifers- so if you have any wonderful suggestions on farmers markets to check out or great camp spots that should be included please reach out as I’d love to hear from you. It’s meant to be a bit of a community effort celebrating this lifestyle we all choose to live.
Follow Mackenzie’s work and adventures here: