David Douglas Duncan, Who Photographed the Reality of War, Dies at 102
Posted June 7, 2018 8:22 p.m. EDT
Under the helmets, the faces are young and tormented, stubbled and dirty, taut with the strain of battle. They sob over dead friends. They stare exhausted into the fog and rain. They crouch in a muddy foxhole. This goddamn cigarette could be the last.
There are no heroes in David Douglas Duncan’s images of war.
Dark and brooding, mostly black and white, they are the stills of a legendary combat photographer, an artist with a camera, who brought home to America the poignant lives of infantrymen and fleeing civilians caught up in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
“I felt no sense of mission as a combat photographer,” Duncan, who was wounded several times, told The New York Times in 2003. “I just felt maybe the guys out there deserved being photographed just the way they are, whether they are running scared, or showing courage, or diving into a hole, or talking and laughing. And I think I did bring a sense of dignity to the battlefield.”
Duncan, who had lived since 1962 in Castelleras, France, died in the south of France on Thursday, his friend Joel Stratt-McClure said. He was 102.
He was among the most influential photographers of the 20th century, a Life magazine peer of Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White and Carl Mydans. In addition to his war work, Duncan spent years with Pablo Picasso, creating a pictorial record of the artist’s life, and roamed the world making photographic essays of the Kremlin, the city of Paris and the panorama of peoples in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
A globe-trotting adventurer sometimes likened to Hemingway, he climbed mountains, crossed jungles and was a deep-sea diver, a marine zoologist, a fisherman, an aerial and undersea photographer, an archaeologist in Mexico and Central America, and a connoisseur of Japanese art and culture.
His work filled more than 25 books, including eight on Picasso. “This Is War!” (1951), about Korea, was his best-known combat work and brought worldwide acclaim. The renowned photographer Edward Steichen called it “the greatest book of war photographs ever published.”
Duncan was a Marine officer and combat photographer in World War II, covering the U.S. invasions of the Solomon Islands and Okinawa. He was aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay in 1945 photographing the formal Japanese surrender under the stern gaze of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
He joined Life after the war, and his assignments took him to conflicts in Palestine, Greece and Turkey and to India, Egypt, Morocco and Afghanistan. He was in Japan in 1950 when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, igniting a United Nations police action that would leave 36,500 Americans dead.
Duncan was soon on the front lines, exposed to the same dangers as the allied troops and civilian refugees. He also flew on bombing missions, taking pictures from jets swooping over targets. He wrote the text for “This Is War!,” as he did for his other books, but critics said it was his pictures that captured the essence of war.
“My objective always is to stay as close as possible and shoot the pictures as if through the eyes of the infantryman, the Marine or the pilot,” he told an interviewer in 1951. “I wanted to give the reader something of the visual perspective and feeling of the guy under fire, his apprehensions and sufferings, his tensions and releases, his behavior in the presence of threatening death.”
In Vietnam, where he worked for Life and ABC News, Duncan again focused on the vulnerability of soldiers and civilians, often against backgrounds of lush jungles and burning villages. His most powerful images were made in the 1968 siege of Khe Sanh. But in contrast to the objectivity he showed in earlier wars, he was critical of the United States’ role in Vietnam, which he denounced in his book “I Protest!” (1968).
Duncan’s friendship with Picasso began in 1956, when, at the suggestion of a colleague, the war photographer Robert Capa, he went uninvited to Picasso’s home, the Villa La Californie, in the south of France. Admitted by Picasso’s wife at the time, Jacqueline Roque, he found his subject taking a bath. Duncan stayed for months, and they were simpatico for 17 years, until Picasso’s death in 1973.
Exploring the artist’s daily life and extraordinary creativity, Duncan’s pictures were collected in “The Private World of Pablo Picasso” (1958), “Picasso’s Picasso” (1961), “Goodbye Picasso” (1974), “The Silent Studio” (1976), “Viva Picasso” (1980) and other volumes.
“You cannot imagine how simple it was,” Duncan told Le Monde in 2012. “I was there, like someone belonging to the family, and I took pictures.”
David Douglas Duncan was born to Kenneth and Florence (Watson) Duncan on Jan. 23, 1916, in Kansas City, Missouri, where he and three brothers and a sister grew up. He was fascinated with photography from an early age.
He studied archaeology at the University of Arizona in 1934, but dropped out to join expeditions to Mexico and Central America. He then majored in zoology and Spanish at the University of Miami, graduating in 1938.
Resolved to freelance, he began deep-sea fishing, diving and photographing aquatic life. On a schooner from Key West, Florida, to the Cayman Islands, he took pictures of giant sea turtles. In Mexico, he photographed Indians, Gila monsters and jaguars, and shot Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. Off Peru and Chile, he caught and photographed swordfish and marlin. His pictures ran in National Geographic magazine and many newspapers.
After World War II, he went to Palestine for Life and covered fighting between Arabs and Jews in 1946, before the creation of the state of Israel.
His marriage to Leila Khanki, in 1947, ended in divorce. He married Sheila Macauley in 1962. She is his only immediate survivor. Duncan covered the Republican and Democratic National Conventions for NBC News in 1968. He was just back from Vietnam, and what might have been a hiatus from combat turned violent in Chicago, where National Guardsmen with rifles and police officers with nightsticks and tear gas clashed with anti-war demonstrators outside the convention hall where Democrats were meeting. His photographs showed helmeted troops on Michigan Avenue, protesters with gashed and bleeding heads, and a sobbing girl who pleaded with him, “Please, tell it like it was.” The grim scenes were published in his 1969 book, “Self-Portrait: U.S.A.”
Duncan’s archives — including thousands of combat photographs, works on Picasso and others for “The Kremlin” (1960), “Sunflowers for Van Gogh” (1986) and other books — were acquired in 1996 by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin.
He went to war with only essential equipment: helmet, poncho, spoon, toothbrush, compass, soap and backpack containing two canteens, an exposure meter, film and two cameras. He used a Rolleiflex in World War II, but preferred a 35-millimeter. He took two Leica IIIc cameras into Korea, and said they stood up well in the rain and mud. He often used 50-millimeter f/2 and 135-millimeter f/3.5 Nikkor lenses.
A 1972 exhibit of his war photos at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was hailed in The New York Times. “Again and again,” photography columnist Gene Thornton said of Duncan, “he approaches and crosses the line that divides the journalist’s interest in the here and now from the artist’s concern with the timeless and universal.”