And Everyday a Fabulous Life
by Rick Williams
"Duncan ... it's much easier to start than to stop."
Thus Pablo Picasso admonished David Douglas Duncan as the maestro studied the portrait of Jacqueline he had justcompleted. Though he was speaking of an artist's ability to stop when the painting is finished, with a little twist, the maestro's wisdom is an apt metaphor for Duncan's own career in photojournalism. While Duncan clearly knows when he's got the picture, he's not about to stop now. At 83 he is working simultaneously on three books and traveling repeatedly from his home in France to the new, permanent home of his $15 million archive in the Photography Collection of the HarryRansom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin.
Duncan, perhaps the world's best known photojournalist and, certainly,one of the pioneers and most prolific practitioners of 2Oth century photojournalism, donated his extensive archive to the hrc and began shipping it in 1996. The last crate, for now, arrived in May 1999. Duncan is an archivist's dream. He has saved and recorded nearly all of his negatives, notes, cameras, lenses, essays, book layouts (he has published about 30 and did most of the layout and editing photographs, gifts(of which there are many), Marine and war memorabilia (of which there are more), cablegrams, letters and light meters. Much to his credit, and to our gain, he has saved virtually everything that chronicles his 60 years of photography, beginning at home and continuing with the U.S. Marine Corps, then as a staff photographer for Life Magazine and, later, as a freelance photographer. Since the first crate arrived in 1996, archivists have catalogued more than 150 artifacts and 200document boxes, each containing the equivalent of approximately 700 pages of manuscript or 500 contact or negative sheets. To date, there are 1,300 rolls of black-and-white film, some 40,000 images, for the Life work alone. According tohrc archivist Liz Murray, it will take two archivists another two years to catalogue the entire collection.
But it has already been three years, and two more was too long for hrc senior curator of photography and film, Roy Flukinger, to wait to unveil the historic and artistic contents of the treasure. Working together, Flukinger, Murray and Lisa Royse, curator for the LBJ Library and Museum, pulled off the seemingly impossible. They began in September 1998, with only the agreement that they wanted to exhibit a comprehensive retrospective of Duncan's work. Less than six months later, on March 6,1999, the three co-curators cleared the way through the LBJ Library as a Marine color guard opened ceremonies and USMC Brigadier General William Whitlow presented Duncan with the Distinguished Public Service Medal to open the exhibition, David Douglas Duncan: One Life, A Photographic Odyssey.
"The hardest part was figuring out what to eliminate," said Flukinger. "Still, we ended up with over 400 images and artifacts that cover 2,500 feet of wall space. It was the first time we had worked on a major project with the LBJ Library and things couldn't have been smoother," Flukinger continued. The exhibition is free and open to the public.
One of the most significant and insightful aspects of the exhibit is the integration of artifacts with the images. At first one wonders why an individual would save so many things. But as one takes in the work it becomes clear that the exhibit is about people and about relationships. It is not simply a disconnected observer's pictures of something happening out there. The images reflect what was happening between the photographer, the subject and the world in which they wereimmersed together. Duncan did not go anywhere just to look. He went to live. In that regard, the artifacts — the notebooks, letters, cameras, medals, gifts, shoes, rings, suitcases, book mock-ups, notes — are as important as the images if we are to truly understand, as closely as we can, the real meaning of the work in its context. Duncan was not an observer. He was a participant who knew, loved and cared about and for the people he photographed.
That is why he saved all of these artifacts — because they are not artifacts to him. They are memories of life and people. In that regard, they tell the story behind the images in ways that nothing else could.
Like his life, David Douglas Duncan's retrospective is a fascinating odyssey. It begins as one wanders from an immense marble hall into a constructed room — not a large room, but the first of a labyrinth within a labyrinth. Juxtaposed from right to left are an ornate Arabian burnoose that was a gift from His Royal Highness Al Saud; several large images, including a color image of Picasso gesturing poetically; a column of weary soldiers in a freezing winter landscape, an enlargedNewsweek cover from March 6,1999, featuring Duncan's famous portrait of a gaunt Marine and a mural-sized image of another forlorn, battle-worn Marine who stands, staring back at you with eyes nearly closed in fatigue. The mind struggles to find the continuity among these diverse images and artifacts. The viewer is drawn into the labyrinth beyond thisintroductory collage by curiosity and by familiarity, yet incongruous and muted sounds bouncing off marble walls behindand above and below. Through a surreal blend of the sounds of exploding bombs, shells and machine gun fire, mingling with the deep, recorded voice of Duncan saying, "not so fast, slow down, slow down now" and the slow, soft voice of Lyndon Johnson talking about his friends and his policies, the viewer moves on.
Images and personal effects from Duncan's high school and college years include his Boy Scout sash and Eagle medal and a 39 cent camera, a gift from his sister. This camera sits beside an early photo the young Duncan unwittingly took of John Dillinger outside of a burning hotel in 1934. Above this is the Netcaster, the photo that won Duncan the amateur division of the Kodak National Snapshot Contest. This sits beside a letter to his parents that he sent after his graduation from the University of Miami in 1938 announcing, "That's it ... except I intend to be a photographer."
From this point in the exhibition, the images and artifacts weave like a trail though a jungle through the life and friends of Duncan. In World War II, among the images and memorabilia the wanderer encounters again the mural, the haunting image of the same standing, slender soldier, unshaven, hands black with days of dirt. In his right hand, the Marine holds a rifle loosely, as if it might drop from his fingers at any moment. In his left hand he cups a pack of cigarettes. Most distinct is the stare; eyes nearly closed in exhaustion, but still looking, wondering, waiting. Here, in this image, is the connection among all of these images, artifacts and lives. This Marine is Second Lieutenant David Douglas Duncan. He has just returned from action with an elite group of Fijian guerrillas fighting behind Japanese lines on the Island of Bougainville in 1944. The photo credit is "Lt. Richard M. Nixon." On the next wall is the story about the Fijian warriors that ran in National Geographic in January 1945.
From the U.S. Marine Corps and the South Pacific in World War II, Duncan made an abrupt move to Life Magazine. The day after Duncan was interviewed by Life's legendary executive editor, Wilson Hicks, he was called into Hicks office and greeted with a question and a statement from Hicks. "Can you be in Persia this weekend? You are our latest Life photographer." In the next 10 years, shooting for Life Magazine, Duncan lived and worked all over the world, including Persia, Russia, SaudiArabia, Turkey and Korea.
When Duncan left Life to freelance in 1956, he had already covered the Korean war, landing in Korea before the first Marines. Though he came and went as deadlines demanded, when he was in the field, Duncan was a soldier amongsoldiers. In 1950, he accompanied troops on the 39 day trek out of the Chosin Reservoir, fighting all the way underfreezing conditions. In a cable to editors about his work in Korea, Duncan eloquently and painfully stated his working ethic as a preamble to his groundbreaking book, This is War.
Displayed with the cablegrams, his freelance work for Life, National Geographic, Colliers, Holiday, Look, The Saturday Evening Post and others, the cameras, compasses, knives, boots, notes, hand-made awards and jokes are two personal letters, chosen from many written to Duncan by the parents of fallen Marines whom he had photographed in This is War.With his usual grace and generosity, Duncan made every effort to respond to such passionate requests for information and photographs. He also donated all of the profits from This is War to the Navy Relief Society.
In his war images Duncan wanted to touch the individual with "revelations about warfare that embraced the universal." He wanted to show what war did to a man. In order to do so, he had to know those men. So, when he went to war again in Vietnam, freelancing for Life and for ABC News, Lt. Colonel Duncan fought his battle of conscience along side his comrades at Con Thien and Khe Sanh. It was this misguided war that became the subject of one of his most profound books, I Protestl This book chronicled the lives and deaths of his fellow warriors while challenging the reasons behind the war itself. It was after the publication of this book that Howard Chapnick, then president of Black Star, remarked about Duncan, "You get the feeling he's inside the war." Again, in the images and recording of this war, Duncan reveals that relationships and the revelation of relationships are the core of his quest to explore and reflect life. He states that two of his greatest treasures are a cartoon portrait on the back of a C rations box and a hand-made award from the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines declaring Duncan, "One of Us."
From Vietnam Duncan and the exhibition move to another form of war in the streets of Chicago. NBC network president Reuven Frank commissioned Duncan to provide still "photo essays of the air" for NBC News each night after the Democratic and Republican conventions. For the first time in his career, Duncan shot a professional assignment in his native America. Here again Duncan remained true to his creed. He moved in close, either physically or with a special Leitz 4oomm lens, to capture the character and presence of the individuals.
Even though Duncan met Picasso in 1957, it seems appropriate that the labyrinth of this odyssey wait until now, beyond the wars and the politics, to wind its way to its end in the final room where we can celebrate life with Pablo, Duncan and lacqueline. In this room and the one just before it, we see the light and the laughter that we knew was there all along. Here we see the Duncan who worked with Nikon to design a fanciful prismatic lens to photograph everything in multiple forms on the same negative. Upon seeing a distorted, multi-image portrait taken of himself with this lens, Picasso exclaimed"Duncan, finally you've learned to photograph." Here we find the Duncan who publishes books like Sunflowers for VanGogh, Thor, A Secret Garden, Magic Worlds of Fantasy, the loving tribute to his friend, The Fragile Miracle of Martin Gray,and seven books on Picasso.
We learn that Duncan met Picasso when Jacqueline led the photographer straight into the bathroom where the maestro was bathing. We also see the photograph of Picasso in his bath and learn that it was from there that he first told Duncan, "This is your house." Here we see the fanciful crayon drawings and sketches that Picasso did for and in jest of Duncan, including the crayon drawing on the front and back of a $10,000 royalty check that Duncan sent the great painter. Here we see the core of the warrior transcend war and emerge from the pain to live and dance in friendship. It is the same Duncan; the same principles. But here the relationship endures in awe of creativity rather than destruction. And here Duncan leaves us to discern the difference for ourselves. The only way out is back through the labyrinth and the war. Beyond the friendship of Picasso, beyond the rhetoric of political conventions and the Vietnam war, near the images of soldiers on the freezing retreat from Chosin Reservoir and the impassioned letters from grieving parents we remember Duncan's advice to war photographers: "Keep your head down. Get in close, close, close and keep the image simple."
This retrospective is but a small portion of what David Douglas Duncan has given to humanity through his life and work. Though UT purchased Duncan's archive, the photographer gave the funds to the HRC to endow a program supporting photojournalism. The archive and its endowment will help fund exhibitions, provide inspiration and guidance to students of photojournalism and life and serve as a resource for scholarly research into photojournalism and humanity for posterity.
In his own words, Duncan's "battlefield is a world of final simplicity:" you live or you die. But Duncan's life has hardly been simple. Though focused on war it has not been centered on death. Though far from romantic or sensational, Duncan's images are powerful in their revelation that life is everywhere within relationships, even on the battlefield. How else could he proclaim:
"Some days a damned good business ... and everyday a fabulous life."
Nowhere is this more evident than in the exhibition's juxtaposition of his images of young Marines dug in at Con Thien and Khe Sanh with the sounds of war and his own soft, but steady voice, recorded for ABC News. Amid the sounds of the explosion of shells and machine gun fire his voice soothes the nerves of young Marines:
duncan: "Not so fast, slow down now, slow down. It's just silly running around out here in the dark. Don't you see?
"You're the only Marine I've seen who has a guitar and sings. Why don't you sing a song now?"
marine: "Oh, I don't know. Don't much feel like a song now."
duncan: "Well, maybe it would help."
marine: "Oh, I just don't know."
duncan: "You know, just a little."
marine: "Well, OK then. Maybe just a little. A spiritual might be good. Yea, just a little spiritual."
Austin photographer Rick Williams is a visual communications theorist and educator.