Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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David Douglas Duncan


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Follow link for an enlarged imageThis Is War! A Photo-Narrative in Three Parts (1951) / view images from this book

"I wanted to show what war did to a man . . . I wanted to tell a story of war, as war has always been for men through the ages. Only their weapons, the terrain, the causes have changed."
— David Douglas Duncan

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Published by Harper & Brothers, David Douglas Duncan’s first book was a timely extension of his most famous Life work up to that time. Drawn from the pioneering documentary work that he produced in the first few months of the Korean War, Duncan sought to present his story in a entirely different manner from the way it had first appeared in the magazine. The final book divided the narrative of his U.S. Marines into three sections, each with extensive but separate sections of stunning photographs and associated words rendered in Duncan’s passionate and personal style. It became the very first of many subsequent publications that featured both a penetrating look at its subjects and a revealing portrait of the photographer himself.

The book was published on June 25th, 1951, the first anniversary of the start of the Korean War, for the price of $4.95. The volume would go through several reissues, including a Bantam pocket book version in 1967 and a new hardback printing, prepared from the original prints and printed duotones, from Little, Brown and Company in 1990. The later edition bore a new subtitle, A Photo-Narrative of the Korean War, and an introduction by Harrison E. Salisbury — but the impact of the author’s original words and pictures remained unchanged.

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From the book jacket text:
Never in the history of books has an artist — whether writer, painter or photographer— brought the actuality of war closer to reader experience than Duncan has in this unique volume. Here for the first time is a narrative of the courage and grimness, the ordeal and loyalty of first-class fighting men, told through a continuity of captionless photographs which can and must be read. Readers will give each photograph in this book the same attention they would give a moving passage in a fine novel.

And, as in the great war novels of this or any other time, the individual soldier-characters in this story become recognizable and familiar to the reader as they were to Duncan. The photographer-author — an ex-Marine — was so much a member of each group shown here in action that the fighting men were completely unaware that they were being photographed. It was a near miracle that Duncan escaped with his own life, since he took pictures of charging men from in front of them, of men being killed beside him.

Duncan’s story is divided into 3 parts: Part I THE HILL; Part II THE CITY; Part III RETREAT, HELL! Each block of captionless photographs is preceded by a textblock which makes it possible for the reader to understand the circumstances and setting of each picture. There is no necessity for captions. Each photograph can be read for itself and the reader’s perception becomes close to life-like.

In the beginning of the book Duncan, an accomplished writer as well as photographer, presents a background section of text in which the reader is carried from the first day of the Korean War (Duncan was already in Tokyo) up to August of 1950 and the opening of the picture story. In this background section, the first months of the war are seen through the eyes of a reporter who was more participant than observer. For ex-Marine Duncan was on the perilous Suwon airfield when General MacArthur first landed; Duncan flew attack missions with the Air Force jets; he advanced with a crack Korean regiment in an abortive attack — and he was there on the spot when the Marines were first committed . . .

Perhaps the best introduction to Dave Duncan is found in a letter to Life from Marine Company commander Francis I. Fenton, Jr.: “Men in my company think a great deal of him and felt it a great privilege in knowing him. His desire to obtain good pictures for your magazine often made him an exposed target to the enemy, and he gained the reputation as the type who would crawl out in front of our lines so he could get a picture of the facial expression of a Marine as he squeezed a shot off at the gook. Knowing Dave and having his friendship was one of the nicer things about Korea.”

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“In the whole history of the photographic art a camera lens has never produced masterpieces to surpass those portraying the freezing, fighting retreat to Hungnam . . . As sheer composition of mass and line they are eligible for space in any museum where great pictures are hung . . . Automatically, all prizes offered for the outstanding photography triumphs for this year should go to the man who took them, David Douglas Duncan.”
Detroit Free Press

“Superlative . . . An epic of battle in pictures! . . . The Red Badge of Courage written with a Leica.”
Saturday Review

“No one who looks through This Is War! with its vivid combat scenes and unforgettable warrior faces, can doubt that Duncan has succeeded magnificently.”

“In his photographs of the Marine Corps saga of Changjin to Hungnam, David Duncan has set the highest tide that combat photography has achieved . . . ”
— Edward Steichen