Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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David Douglas Duncan


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Follow link for an enlarged imageA Secret Garden: Photographers of the Imagination (1992) / view images from this book

From the book jacket text:
André Villers must be the funniest man I know and yet I've never heard him laugh.

He just smiles when sharing his hidden Mediterranean garden where he redesigns the world into which he was born. Secret Garden is an attempt to translate some of the humor that I discovered in André's world into newborn laughter for anyone seeking relief from the steadily rising flood of tragic images of disaster victims which seem about to engulf our troubled Earth.

Villers taught himself everything he treasures most in life: photography, painting, a passion for poetry — and how to walk once again after five claustrophobic years spent in plastercasts when many doctors dismissed him as a hopeless invalid. He had earlier been stricken with a spinal deformity caused by wartime childhood malnutrition during enemy occupation of his hometown in eastern France. After the Allied victory his life was restricted to a hospital bed, totally immobile, in sunny Vallauris on the Côte d’Azur. He was later loaned an ancient camera as part of the therapy to make him walk again. André’s fate had been reborn.

A master photographer today, his portraits of painters and poets have been published and increasingly honored for thirty years. We have been friends even longer. For the last seven years, while still taking portraits of the most celebrated and obscure artists, Villers has isolated himself in a one-room shack next to the darkroom in his garden. Soundless eruptions of his imagination are now threatening to bury him there. Every day hilarious, mysterious and hauntingly gentle characters of sculpted cardboard appear at his side. Also numerous self-portraits, not one self-pitying.

Hundreds upon hundreds are stacked in that almost exploding hideaway. Each is different. All have been fired by that elusive spark which brings life to inanimate material: a new folk art of our time. For each is embellished with a shining symbol of our hi-tech mini-religion, the now worldwide cult-of-the-camera.

Working with only a razor-knife and discarded boxes brought home by his wife from the nearby supermarket, an office stapling machine and his seemingly never exhausted imagination, Villers is creating the entire population of a mythical race — a children's world of giants and gnomes for everyone.

These photographs of Villers’ work have been reproduced straight from "One Hour" color prints made by a hole-in-the-wall photography shop at the village supermarket near DDD's home in southern France.

Everything in Secret Garden was shot on an amateur's negative color film. It was a surprise. When in deep shade, Duncan found that he could achieve both color saturation and a sense of Villers' artistic passion that startled him and other professional friends, including some of the finest color printers in the world who saw first layouts of these pages at last year's Frankfurt International Book Fair.

This is Duncan's nineteenth book and it fulfills one of his greatest ambitions: to be his own publisher. By assuming that final role in book creativity he hopes to make it affordable to students, young artists and photographers and other dreamers, who will feel at home in Villers' garden.