Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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David Douglas Duncan


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, satisfying 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.

The primary, comprehensive autobiographical 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.

In 2003 he came full circle with his even more comprehensive, second autobiography – Photo Nomad. Duncan was now able to condense eighty years of experience and adventure into a massive volume of smaller dimensions but even greater breadth. The newer volume – designed for compact portability but with the same exacting quality of reproductions as all its predecessors – completed one journey for the photographer/writer. It became Duncan’s consummate celebration of photojournalism and its profound effect upon his life and the world he continued to explore. The gypsy may have continued his journey but the photographer was now even more aware of the influence that his words and photographs could have on future generations.

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