Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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David Douglas Duncan


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.





Photo by Arthur C. Popham, Jr.


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 a 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.

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