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Photojournalist David Douglas Duncan Dies at 102

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Legendary American photojournalist David Douglas Duncan has died. One of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, Duncan was best known for his combat photographs captured during World War II and the Korean War.

David Douglas Duncan looking through camera fitted with prismatic lens, between 1963 and 1972. Photograph by Sheila Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.

Portrait of David Douglas Duncan by Nikon.

Duncan was born on January 23, 1916, in Kansas City, Missouri. He first stepped into the world of photojournalism while studying zoology and Spanish at the University of Miami, where he served as the school paper’s picture editor and photographer.

“His career as a photojournalist began when he took photographs of a hotel fire in Tucson, Arizona, while he was then studying archaeology at nearby University of Arizona,” Duncan’s Wikipedia article states. “His photos included one of a hotel guest who made repeated attempts to go back into the burning building for his suitcase. That photo proved to be newsworthy when the guest turned out to have been notorious bank robber John Dillinger and the suitcase to have contained the proceeds of a bank robbery in which he had shot a police officer.

“Unfortunately, after the film was turned over to the Tucson Citizen, it was lost forever, and the photos were never printed.”

After the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor during World War II, Duncan joined the Marine Corps and became a combat photographer. He was tasked with shooting operations in the South Pacific, where he not only documented battles against the Japanese from up close but fought in them as well.

“1stLt David D. Duncan formerly at El Toro, who participated in the famed Fiji Patrol on Bougainville. The picture was made by T/Sgt. George Circle, Group 46 aerial photographer who was with Duncan at Bougainville. [#]”

“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,” the New York Times writes. “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.”

Duncan’s wartime photos caught the eye of Life magazine, which then hired Duncan as a staff photographer to document events around the world.

The photographer would go on to capture famous photos of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Captain Ike Fenton, Commanding Officer of Baker Company, 5th Regiment of the 1st Marine Brigade, receives reports of dwindling supplies during the battle to secure No-Name Ridge along the Naktong River, Korea. September 1950. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches. David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection © David Douglas Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.
U.S. Marines, Seoul, Korea, September 1950. Digitally reproduced from original 35mm negative. David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection © David Douglas Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.
Korean War, 1950. Gelatin silver print, 6 7/8 x 10 inches. David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection © David Douglas Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.
Korean War, 1950. Gelatin silver print, 13 x 11 inches. David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection © David Douglas Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.
Korean War, 1950. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 13 5/8 inches. David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection © David Douglas Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.
One man was black—one was white; the endless nights and days, the rain-flooded trench, constant enemy shelling, cigarettes, and the grim life which they shared were the same (Con Thien), 1967. Gelatin silver print, 9 x 13 inches. David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection © David Douglas Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.

Through his colleague photographer Robert Capa, Duncan became close friends with artist Pablo Picasso. He eventually moved to a town near Picasso in France and published 6 books of photos of the artist.

Picasso, clad in a bright green terry-cloth robe, confronts the camera on the front steps of Mas Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, 1959 or later. David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection © David Douglas Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.
Pablo Picasso [enjoys a cigarette in the comfort of his bentwood rocker] in the center of his studio, La Californie, [1957]. David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection © David Douglas Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.
Picasso’s face reflected for an instant, 1967. Digitally reproduced from original 35mm negative. David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection © David Douglas Duncan. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center.

During his career, Duncan also had a close relationship with Nikon, which published its own tribute to the photographer today:

“When Mr. Duncan visited Japan as a Life magazine photographer in 1950, he came to discover the outstanding performance of NIKKOR lenses,” Nikon writes. “This eventually led to opportunities for both the names of Nikon and NIKKOR to be recognized all over the world. For this, we are indebted to him.”

“Since that initial introduction, Mr. Duncan’s continued career as a photojournalist and great partner of Nikon have led to mutually deep ties over a long period of time. We respectfully honor the immeasurable contribution that Mr. Duncan has made to journalism around the world during his 102-year lifetime. […] He will remain in the hearts of his Nikon family forever.”


Here’s an interview Nikon did with Duncan for its 100th anniversary:

Tributes have also been pouring out across the world:





Here’s a 1-minute video highlighting some of Duncan’s work, by the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, which has a collection of over 100,000 photos and other items from Duncan’s life and career:

Duncan died yesterday of a pulmonary infection at a hospital near his home in Grasse, France. He was 102.


Image credits: Portraits of David Douglas Duncan by Nikon

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