David Douglas Duncan: Journeys to the Muslim World, 1946-1956
By Katherine Slusher
I first met David Douglas Duncan and his wife, Sheila, on one of their frequent trips to Barcelona from their home in the south of France. I was charmed by them both and became curious about what other work Duncan had done in his long career as a photojournalist. I was well acquainted with the photographs of his much-loved Picasso and his extraordinary combat images, but it occurred to me that in a life that spanned more than 90 years, there must be hidden treasures that had fallen through the cracks of time. I became curious about what other work Duncan had done in his long career as a photojournalist. After a trip to visit his archives at the Ransom Center, I was not disappointed.
A magazine article I discovered in the Ransom Center's archives profiling Duncan in 1946 described his life as an unending Indiana Jones adventure. He became an expert snake handler while still a boy in Kansas City, Missouri. From there he headed south for college, his curiosity and sense of discovery alive. His exploits were legendary; on a trip to the Florida Everglades, he was bitten by a rattlesnake while exploring the swamps. Duncan neatly cut two incisions in his hand and sucked the venom out. While on a sailing trip in the Caribbean, Duncan broke his arm scaling a cliff in search of an iguana and managed to sew up the huge gash in his arm with a fish hook and thread. Tall, dashing, and totally self-sufficient, he sailed off the coast of South America documenting marlin and giant squid for the Museum of Natural History, photographed throughout South America, survived a plane crash in Central America, and, more enjoyably, befriended a beautiful woman bullfighter in Mexico.
After serving as a combat photographer for three years as a Marine lieutenant in World War II, Duncan was honorably discharged and began working as the Middle East correspondent for LIFE magazine, then the top news magazine of its kind. He was to continue his association with the magazine for the next ten years. Based in Cairo, Egypt, and working out of the Rome office, he photographed extensively throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. It was the golden era of photojournalism, and Duncan was one of its prodigal exponents. He wrote his own copy, as in the case of the background text on the Qashqai of Persia, the 28-page typed description that offered an informed and concise history lesson on Iran and the ancestral traditions of one of its peoples. That text was rushed back to the main office in New York on the next flight out along with a dozen rolls of film and Duncan's typed captions for each image. All of that was edited into a story and on the newsstand the following week with the header, "David Douglas Duncan Reports From..." A photograph of him was often included on the contents page, dressed in Saudi Arabian traditional garb while reporting on the Saudi royal family, or wearing the Qashquai nomads' distinctive hat while accompanying them on horseback during their month-long annual migration.
Duncan's more than 3,000 images of the Middle East, taken during the 1940s and 1950s, combined with his original dispatches, provide a captivating window into a distinct time. His excitement was palpable, as was his affection and empathy for the people he was living with and photographing. He had a singular talent for remaining discreet yet very present, managing to communicate with minimal foreign language skills. Duncan often proposed his ideas for photo essays to Wilson Hicks, LIFE's legendary picture editor, and once they were approved, he became engrossed in photographing, writing, and loving every minute of it. There are epic photographs from that period—of dark uniformed men on horseback in Turkey in a calligraphic pattern against the snow or pounding through the Iranian desert.
In 1955, Duncan's photographs documenting the Muslim world were part of a series entitled "The World's Great Religions" that LIFE published over the span of several months. This photo essay is an extraordinary overview of his travels throughout Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Spain, Kenya, Pakistan, and India. In reading through Duncan's dispatches to the TIME/LIFE New York office, it is apparent that he had an informed and thoughtful viewpoint on American foreign policy. In one particularly riveting and searing essay on Afghanistan, Duncan described his trip across the country with the United States ambassador. His grasp of foreign service diplomacy appears in strong contrast to that of the diplomat, whose lack of interest in the Afghan people was lamentable.
This body of work from the post-war decade makes Duncan's strong convictions about humanity and cultural identity all the more poignant. He had just come from the battered and bloody fighting fields of the Pacific, where he had not only documented but participated in active combat. His vision of a just and balanced world intact, he fully embraced his life on its extraordinary journey.
Katherine Slusher is an art curator and writer based in Barcelona and has published widely on photography and contemporary art. She is the author of the book Lee Miller and Roland Penrose: The Green Memories of Desire (Prestel, 2007) and has contributed to numerous exhibition catalogs in the United States and abroad. At the Ransom Center, she was a David Douglas Duncan Fellow in 2009.