Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Spring 2009 Newsletter

David Douglas Duncan's Cameras

Camera. Click to enlarge.

Leica camera fitted with a Nikkor lens for David Douglas Duncan

While David Douglas Duncan was in Turkey in 1947 on assignment for LIFE Magazine, he got wind of Rolleiflex cameras going for a hundred dollars in Bulgaria. His ensuing bargain hunting landed him behind the freshly-minted Iron Curtain where, from his exclusive vantage point, he documented the Communist takeover and bagged a multi-page cover story in the magazine.

Despite the professional payoff by the alluring Rolleiflex, Duncan became most closely associated with Leica—but with a twist. He was so impressed with shots taken by a Japanese photographer, Jun Miki, using a then little-known Nikkor lens, that Duncan fitted one to his Leica III C. This combo, used throughout his lauded coverage of the Korean War, produced 35mm negatives whose quality rivaled that of large format cameras, which could prove unwieldy on the battlefield. (Although this hadn't stopped Duncan and his Zeiss Super-Ikonta B from capturing stirring World War II images, sometimes while stuffed in a P-38 wing-tank with a Plexiglas nose.)

By the time Duncan began photographing the war in Vietnam, he was shooting with Leica M3Ds (D for Duncan), which the company manufactured and designed especially for him, limiting production to four. The battle-hardened camera, curiously enough, also proved ideally suited for one of Duncan's subsequent and more intimate topics: Pablo Picasso and his family. With its soft-click shutter, this camera helped the photographer document the artist's private moments as unobtrusively as possible.

—Suzy Banks

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