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“. . . And Every Day A Fabulous Life.”

Roy Flukinger

David Douglas Duncan looking out from a plexiglass enclosure that is attached to the underside of a P-38 aircraft.
David Douglas Duncan, sealed into the plexiglass belly tank of the P-38, with his pilot, Col. Edward H. Taylor, before their takeoff from Okinawa. Photograph by Tech. Sgt. Corkran. Japan, 1945.

Had he not chosen to become a photojournalist, it seems certain that someone very like David Douglas Duncan would have been created by the profession itself. In too many ways this energetic and talented Midwesterner – born in Kansas City, Missouri (“You don’t get much closer to the heart of the country than that!”), on January 23, 1916 – came to embody the spirit, resourcefulness and enthusiasm which characterized photojournalism at the midpoint of this century. Even his monogram – DDD – has been seized upon by editors and critics alike,as it seems to express both the unique spirit and the uncomplicatedly direct nature characteristic of the profession.

From photography’s very start in the mid-nineteenth century its practitioners have been aware of the power of the photograph to narrate, depict, reveal and persuade. And, when the camera image could be effectively combined with the written or recorded word, the power of both could be amplified a thousandfold. From its earliest beginnings, through its photomechanical and mass media revolutions near the turn of the century, and finally with the rise of the picture press immediately before and after World War II when it first became a true profession, photojournalism has found its greatest champions among those who had a head for the business, a heart for its challenge, and an eye for its creative possibilities.

All three elements coalesced brilliantly in David Douglas Duncan. Through the decades he has brought back photographs which reveal both the agony and the nobility of war, both the beauties and the mysteries of many lands, both the generosity and the limitations of humankind. There is something of the poet in his soul – always searching for the romantic and the heroic in the everyday world around us. You will find in nearly all of Duncan’s photographs and writings an eye for revealing the human spirit in a consistently bold and breathtaking fashion. They are the terms of living by which he survives and excels – a vitality not for everyone but certainly embodied within his very being. A note appears in one of his notebooks from 1971: “Some days a darned good business . . . and every day a fabulous life.”

The term “fun” pops up constantly in Duncan’s books and correspondence. While it is indicative of his still-youthful spirit and unquenchable energy, it cannot belie the hard work and serious intent behind his personal life and professional career. Both were found in ample supply in his Kansas City boyhood – hunting, collecting snakes, becoming an Eagle Scout at a relatively young age. And both were in ample evidence in the late 1930s and early 1940s as he progressed into the uncertain future of his chosen profession.

Duncan took his first step in the direction of photojournalism while a student of archaeology at the University of Arizona. On the morning of January 24, 1934, armed with a 39-cent Bakelite Univex camera that had been a recent birthday gift from his sister, Jean, he rushed into downtown Tucson to shoot some photos of the fire at the old Congress Hotel. Among those attracting his attention at the scene was one particularly excitable guest who kept trying to get back to his room to retrieve his suitcase. Duncan snapped the picture and then moved on. Three days later he would learn that he had photographed John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1, who had been trying to retrieve his money from the fire. Although this photograph has not survived, the experience would have a profound effect on Duncan.

Amateur awards and “picture story” opportunities began to open up before the young student and, upon graduating in 1938 from the University of Miami with a BA in zoology and Spanish, he set off on his course. He later recalled that critical year: “Picture possibilities were everywhere in 1938. Picture ‘stories’ were practically unknown. Picture markets were a joke. The guys and girls who used cameras to reflect and interpret this changing world created a new nomadic life and professional caste: photo-journalist.”

Throughout this “amateur” period of his career, Duncan edited dozens of picture stories for the Sunday sections of numerous American newspapers. In the five years before his entry into the U.S. Marine Corps he learned his craft, honed his natural artistic sensibilities, learned to put pictures and words together, and published widely in U.S. newspapers and magazines. He networked with and learned from a landmark generation of managing editors and picture editors of major American newspapers – what he would recall as “. . . a fabulous time of meeting rare men.” He also learned how to find more far-ranging work, which allowed him to travel, to experience new lands, to begin to answer the incessant call for adventure – and, of course, to produce marvelous photographs and exceptional stories to accompany them.

The photographs from these years are a varied lot in terms of their subject matter. Nonetheless,they reveal a remarkable range of techniques and styles while attesting to a growing maturity of composition and artistry. The young photographer preparing to depart for World War II would soon leave his “amateur” status far behind. Duncan enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in Miami on February 17,1943. At the end of that day he wrote to his parents with the news: “Childhood and youth are finished. Only He knows how much of my race has been run.”

Second Lieutenant David Douglas Duncan completed his basic training at Quantico and, following brief postings to California and Hawaii, worked his way into the theater of war as a combat photographer throughout the Solomon Islands and the western Pacific. Although based with the Marines’ only photo-bomber air squadron at Esp'ritu Santo in the New Hebrides, his orders from the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command (SCAT) were broad and wide-ranging. He had access to most military bases and operations and was able to document all aspects of SCAT’s operations throughout the many island bases covering the Pacific Theater.

In one dramatic instance he saw action with Fijian guerrillas fighting behind the Japanese lines on Bougainville Island. On Okinawa,he flew inside a plastic-nosed belly tank attached under the wing of a P-38 fighter plane, in order to obtain aerial pictures of close air support of the infantry. In the end he even managed to photograph the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.

Throughout these years of active military service, Duncan’s talent for “getting the story” never deserted him. Unlike the general class of military photographers, he brought himself and his cameras in as close as possible, providing a composed but powerful insight into the men and women involved in the operations, and not merely their hardware. World War II helped Duncan prepare for survival and success in the battles and wars he would record in future decades. Above all, however, it helped him learn how to seek out and define the human perspective of any situation or story.

Luck and experience next came into play in March of 1946 when Jay Eyerman, the chief photographer for LIFE magazine and a wartime acquaintance of Duncan’s, brought the photographer to the attention of the magazine’s legendary executive editor, Wilson Hicks. One day after the job interview, Hicks made Duncan’s “dream of dreams” come true by summoning the photographer to his office and greeting him outside the office door with both question and statement: “Can you be in Persia this weekend? You are our latest LIFE photographer.”

Throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, the apex of world photojournalism was to become a photographer for LIFE magazine. No other position within the profession held such prestige, challenge, and hard work as that afforded to the world’s number one picture magazine. At the time it was the weekly journal of word and image, telling the story of all the changes that were occurring around the globe. And David Douglas Duncan – who proved that he could report the stories with the right photographs and the correct words – came to typify the modern world-class photojournalist of this era.

Duncan covered the dramatic and the everyday with equal thoroughness and insight. His assignments for LIFE ranged from the end of the British Raj in India, to a world of conflicts in Turkey, Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East – all viewed with journalistic clarity from both the positions of power as well as the vantage point of the person in the street. He would even play a significant role in the technological advancement of his profession with his early advocacy and use (during the Korean War) of Nikkor lenses from the then-fledgling Japanese photographic industry.

Duncan was working on assignment in Tokyo but keeping an eye open for breaking news events in June of 1950 when North Korea began invading South Korea at several strategic points along the 38th Parallel. Responding to calls from the United Nations for help, America immediately entered the war. As the dispatches to his LIFE editors and bureau chiefs indicate, Duncan beat the first U.S. Marines into the country, and then continued to supply images and stories from the field, including an everyman-like story of one platoon’s assault on and occupation of a “no-name ridge” in the battle zone.

On one of his frequent returns to the war zone during that year, he cabled his plans to the editorial staff:


This time his camera was able to record the U.S. forces accomplishing the decisive victory of retaking the southern capital city of Seoul.

In December of that year, he accompanied the Marines in their ultimately futile attempt to invade North Korea. Massively outnumbered by invading Chinese forces, the Americans were forced to fight their way out of an entrapment at the Chosin Reservoir and stage a dramatic withdrawal. Under enemy fire for more than thirty miles and trapped in blizzards and freezing conditions, the Marines struggled on, carrying their dead and wounded, until they reached the coast and safe evacuation. Duncan fought his way out with them, returning with even more stunning photographs of men in the hell of warfare.

David Douglas Duncan sitting with two other soldiers on the battlefield.
Vietnam War: Self-portrait with troops at Con Thien. David Douglas Duncan. Vietnam, 1967.

Duncan eventually gathered his Korean coverage into a single volume, This Is War! which was published to great acclaim in 1951. It was his first book and, to further honor the men he photographed and fought alongside, he arranged for all his royalties to go to a fund for the widows and children of the Marines who did not make it home.

It was perhaps inevitable that the combat photographer would return to an American battle zone once more, even though seventeen years had passed. Having reported upon the failure of the French to oversee the governance of Indochina in 1953, Duncan was not surprised to see the region plunge into prolonged warfare once more. With the backing of LIFE and ABC-TV, Duncan returned in 1967 to report on the escalating war in Vietnam. Ultimately two new books would emerge from Vietnam to complete his “war trilogy” – I Protest! (1968) and War Without Heroes (1970) – delineating the lives and deaths of his fellow warriors while challenging the American government’s handling of the war itself.

It is often easy to forget, when seeing a photograph which encompasses powerful subject matter such as war or anguish, just how much artistry must go into both the composition of the exposure and the making of the final print. The professional photographer, while undergoing the conditions of the moment he is recording with his camera, must simultaneously call upon his mastery of aesthetics, his knowledge of his equipment and his understanding of the photochemical properties of the medium. That Duncan could consistently employ his artistic sensibilities and technological expertise while documenting events during which both he and his subjects were in danger of losing their lives is a testament to his extraordinary clear-headedness.

Equally important was the creation of the final print, which Duncan has always paid meticulous attention to. As he has always pointed out: “There’s nobody between you and the print. Nobody. It’s you and the subject and the final print. And if you get it published that way, you’ve said it.”

While Duncan was selling his Vietnam work at NBC News in New York, Reuven Frank, the president of the network, conceived the idea of Duncan shooting the upcoming 1968 national conventions in Miami Beach and Chicago. Frank commissioned Duncan to produce still images on a daily basis of any aspect of the convention’s activities that he chose,and then to present them in a three-to-five minute television spot at the end of each day’s broadcast with Duncan’s narrative in the place of captions. These “photo-essays of the air” required a massive amount of work throughout the conventions – ultimately involving twenty-hour workdays and thirty to fifty still photos for each daily prime time broadcast.

It also challenged Duncan in other ways. A large-scale still image presentation for television broadcast had never really been attempted before. Duncan had to reschool his eye to shoot almost exclusively horizontally in order to accommodate the presentational format of the television screen. Perhaps most surprising of all, despite all his years of experience in photojournalism, the conventions were the first professional story that Duncan had shot in his native America.

The results were remarkable on all fronts. Delighting broadcasters and audience alike, they ultimately contributed new understanding of a turbulent and monumental time in the nation’s history. In his landmark 1969 book, Self-Portrait:U.S.A, Duncan remarked, “. . . I feel my convention photographs show us as we are – close up: shot during the gathering of our great political clans . . . our best, worst, most mediocre . . . . I shot my pictures as I found them, rooting for no one, favoring nobody, thrilled with much of what I found, reflective because of new responses discovered within myself and grateful to this experience that released them.”

The desire to write a book, to tell a story with depth and perception, first appears in Duncan’s writings about Palestine in the late 1940s. First realized in 1951 with the publication of This Is War!, the production of books soon became a central part of Duncan’s creative endeavors,satis-fying a deeper need than the bylines and picture credits of years of magazine and newspaper articles.

In its most practical sense, the book format presented a much larger and more permanent collection of images and ideas, capable of outlasting transitory weekly and monthly periodicals. Book publication also provided the most complete means of presenting his words and his pictures in his own way. In nearly all instances, Duncan controlled the size, scale, design, layout, and editorship of each of his publications. Generally, each volume went through numerous full-scale mock-ups, involving cut-and-paste composites of his layouts and several drafts of his texts. Each book in his archive is backed up by a number of full-size dummies that reveal the evolution of his thoughts about how his work should be presented to ever-growing audiences. Despite his firm commitment to his photojournalistic heritage, the book – along with the exhibition – became the ultimate means for Duncan to reach his viewing audience.

David Douglas Duncan examining a stack of photographs at the Ransom Center.
David Douglas Duncan working on his archive at the Ransom Center. Photo by Frank Yezer. Austin, Texas, 1998.

The consummate autobiographic presentation of the photographer and his work became Yankee Nomad, Duncan’s fifteen-years-in-the-making magnum opus, first published in 1966. With 480 pages encompassing hundreds of photographs and thousands of words, the volume went through multiple edits, layouts, and rewrites (including the destruction of the first draft of the text by an errant publisher), as Duncan sought to cover the first three decades of his rich career. In the course of the volume he solidified his image as the “gypsy photojournalist” while presenting a compendium of many of his most famous pictures and most colorful stories. He also reset the standard for future photographic autobiographies.

One could argue that it was inevitable that David Douglas Duncan’s attraction for the romantic and the monumental would one day lead him to the villa of this century’s most influential artist, Pablo Picasso. Certainly both men – though born worlds apart and clearly masters of very different visual media – shared a singular passion for work and life which would serve to enrich their own lives as well as their chosen careers.

The immediate impetus for the meeting was fellow photojournalist Robert Capa, a longtime friend of both men and the individual whom Duncan credits with first suggesting that he look the artist up at his home in the south of France. Although Capa would not survive to witness the fruits of this meeting – he was tragically killed by a land mine while covering the war in French Indochina in 1954 – Duncan did not forget his friend or his suggestion. Two years later he set out, bearing only his considerable charm and the gift of a ring , to make the artist’s acquaintance; in the end he found a soulmate and source of inspiration.

By 1957, while completing the first of the seven books he would eventually produce about the artist, Duncan felt the culmination of his photographic evolution when he wrote his editor: “[Picasso] appears to love all work that he touches. This love shows up in the pictures, too. I have covered many, many subjects as a photographer. This is the Best.”

It is a bit difficult to consider one, absolute “best” in a career like Duncan’s. After all, the man has produced nearly two dozen books (with more coming), countless articles,and hundreds of thousands of images in the 60+ years of his professional life. Certainly he has earned his posi-tion as one of this century’s greatest photojournalists.

And yet, throughout it all, one can find that the Hemingwayesque heart of the youthful adventurer is still abeat in his breast. In 1957 he wrote to a friend, “It’s very simple . . . this banging around with a camera and typewriter as a ‘business’ is just one helluva lot of fun.” It is no coincidence that his previous autobiography, Yankee Nomad, and the working title of its future amplification, Photo Nomad, share the same descriptive noun.

Perhaps the sum total of the successful photojournalist is found in the journey – the miles traveled, the friends made,the people depicted, the stories written, the images created, the ideas championed and the souls touched. DDD has let his gypsy heart carry him through many miles and years – and now that his work has found a home at the Ransom Center, the record of his odyssey will endure permanently.

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