Skip to Main Content
Harry Ransom Center homepage

News Release — July 24, 1998

War Photographer's Collection Comes to Texas

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin announces the acquisition of the award-winning photographer David Douglas Duncan's world-renowned archive. The Ransom Center archive captures the career of one of America's great photographers, containing over sixty years of photographs, negatives, correspondence, albums, manuscripts, equipment, and personal memorabilia. "Acquiring David Douglas Duncan's prestigious archive brings the Ransom Center's overview of photojournalism's impact into the modern age," noted Roy Flukinger, curator of the Center's photography collection.

David Douglas Duncan: "Tough, Audacious, and Original"

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1916, David Douglas Duncan began his career as a photojournalist at the age of 18. While a student at the University of Arizona majoring in archaeology, he snapped the fleeing victims of an early-morning hotel fire using a 39-cent camera, a gift from his younger sister. He was later surprised to learn that one frantic guest captured on his film was America's Public Enemy No. 1, the infamous John Dillinger.

From this serendipitous beginning, Duncan went on to become one the world's greatest wartime photographers, capturing highly acclaimed and poignant images in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Of his combat photography, Duncan himself wrote, "I wanted to show the way men live and die when they know death is among them."

Commissioned as a U.S. Marine Second Lieutenant in 1943, Duncan earned numerous decorations for the aerial photographs he boldly snapped from the belly of a P-38 fighter plane. Duncan later linked up with Fijian guerrillas, fighting the Japanese from behind enemy lines, and was in China before Peking fell to the Communists.

As a civilian photographer for LIFE magazine, Duncan rejoined the Marines in Korea, photographing nameless battles, the liberation of Seoul, and the Marines' harrowing Christmas retreat from the Yalu River. Through Duncan's stark black-and-white photographs, the epic saga of the "Forgotten War" came alive, piercing America's collective memory. Today, that memory remains vital, due largely to what Edward Steichen, former Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, called "the greatest photographic document ever produced showing men at war."

Already retired from the military with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Duncan again rejoined the Marines in Vietnam, most notably photographing the siege of Khe Sanh. In 1968, Duncan flew straight from the besieged outpost to hand deliver the negatives that were to comprise I Protest!, his broadside denunciation of the war.

While perhaps most known for his wartime photographs, Duncan has aimed his camera at a wide-range of subjects. He provided the first coverage penetrating the Iron Curtain and, with the assistance of Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, spent three years photographing Russia's Kremlin treasures. His intimate friendship with Pablo Picasso and his family produced one of the most exclusive and revealing portraits of the artist and his world. Seven books by Duncan capture these insights including the best seller Picasso's Picassos (1961).

In 1972, Duncan set a new standard in photographic achievement, becoming the first photographer to hold a one-person exhibition at New York's prestigious Whitney Museum of Art. His career, aptly described by the esteemed foreign corespondent John Gunther as "tough, audacious, and original," produced a number of legendary images that the Ransom Center will proudly preserve for scholarship, public viewing, and posterity.

The Duncan Archive at the Ransom Center

The Ransom Center's collection of Duncan's work is expansive and unique. It contains all of Duncan's wartime photos and negatives, including his award-winning coverage of both the Korean and Vietnam wars. In addition, the collection includes the total body of writing, editing, and design work Duncan undertook to produce his war trilogy--This is War! (1951), I Protest! (1961), and War Without Heroes (1970)--and the production materials (correspondence, contracts, text, dummies, layouts, and proofs) for each of Duncan's twenty-one books. The collection also houses extensive correspondence between Duncan and his family and friends, editors at LIFE, and numerous notables of the twentieth century.

The Duncan Endowment for Photojournalism

After the Ransom Center attained his archive, Duncan, in a gesture characteristic of his legendary individuality, returned the initial purchase fee to establish an endowment in his name. The David Douglas Duncan Endowment, devoted to enhancing the study of photojournalism, will support exhibitions, public events, research, and new acquisitions at the Ransom Center. In partnership with related academic departments, the Center will seek to maximize the educational and public benefit of these activities. With this goal in mind, the Duncan Endowment's first exhibition is currently being planned in conjunction with the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library at the University of Texas. The exhibition, scheduled to open in the first week of March, 1999, will feature the works of the endowment's creator, David Douglas Duncan.

Press Room Press Releases


Alyssa Morris
Communications & Marketing Manager