“There’s nobody between you and the print. Nobody. It’s you and the subject and the final print. And if you get it published that way, you’ve said it.” -David Douglas Duncan
War photographer’s gear bag
David Douglas Duncan kept his equipment light. He took the essentials — his helmet, poncho, toothbrush, soap, a spoon in a backpack along with two canteens of water.
During World War II, he used a Rolleiflex twin-lens camera. Later, for the Korean Conflict, he shot with two Leica IIIc cameras and a 50mm f/2.0 and 135mm f/3.5 Nikkor lenses. His choice he said was because “they stood up well in the rain and mud.”
World War II
Duncan was an officer in the Marines and a combat photographer during the war from 1943–1946. He covered the invasions of the Solomon Islands and Okinawa in Japan. He photographed the surrender of the Japanese Empire on board the USS Missouri at the end of WWII in 1945, capturing the signing of the documents under the stern eye of General Douglas MacArthur (opening photo, bottom row, first image).
Duncan was honorably discharged from the Marines with the rank of First Lieutenant with a Purple Heart, a Legion of Merit, six battle stars, three air medals and two flying crosses on February 1, 1946.
By March 30, 1946, he had been hired by Wilson Hicks as a staff photographer for Life magazine and on his way to Tehran, Iran which was threatened by Russian tanks.
During his tenure at Life, he was based out of Cairo, Rome and Istanbul. From 1946–1956, Duncan crossed the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. He filed many stories on Japanese culture, the Qashqai nomads of Persia, Islamic women, the beginnings of the oil riches in Saudi Arabia, not to mention the end of the British occupation of India and of course, war.
He covered the Greek Civil War in 1948 and the Korean War. This conflict is chronicled in his first book “This is War!” published in 1951 and covering its first year.
Two of his most famous photos from the war were “Capt. Ike Fenton, commanding officer of Baker Company, 5th Regiment of the 1st Marine Brigade, during the battle to secure No-Name Ridge along the Naktong River, Korea, September 1950” and another from that year titled simply “Korea” (opening photo, top row, first and second images).
A busy & eventful year
In 1956, he left Life for Collier’s magazine. During the year he photographed Connemara, Ireland, Marrakech, Morocco and the Gaza Strip. He took the first of five trips to Russia where he photographed the treasures of the Kremlin. He went to Germany to shoot an ad campaign for the new gullwing Mercedes-Benz 300 SL and went to France where he met the artist Pablo Picasso. By the end of 1956, Collier’s had gone out of business and Duncan became a freelance photojournalist.
For the rest of the 1950s and into the early 1960s, David Duncan Douglas photographed Pablo Picasso’s home life (opening photo, bottom row, last image) and him working. The photographs became the book “The Private World of Pablo Picasso” published in 1958. Another book, “Picasso’s Picassos” featured photographs of Picasso’s work never seen by the public.
During this time, Duncan returned to Russia four times to complete research and make photos of the Kremlin’s art treasures. In 1960 he published “The Kremlin.” He also worked on his first autobiography of his pictures. “Yankee Nomad” hit the bookstores in 1966.
1967: Back to war
David Douglas Duncan went to Vietnam for Life magazine and ABC News. He covered the war in Con Thien that October and in February 1968, photographed and wrote about Khe Sanh.
A month after these battles he published “I Protest!” to share his outrage at what he had seen and photographed in Vietnam (opening photo, top row, last image). By 1968 he had returned and covered the national presidential conventions (opening photo, bottom row, middle image) for NBC television specials.
His book, “War Without Heros” in 1970, carried his entire coverage of the Vietnam War.
Retirement — sort of
David Douglas Duncan was mostly retired as a photojournalistic and commercial photographer by the early 1970s. He worked on his books. Through his 35 years of work, he published 16 of them including five on the life of Picasso and a second autobiography “Photo Nomad” in 2003. He also focused on a series of books introducing the world to other artist’s work including “New York/New York: Masterworks of a Street Peddler” by George Forss.
David Douglas Duncan’s archives are held by the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, TX which produced the short video below.