David Douglas Duncan’s 20th Century

I’ve been a photographer for a very, very long time. I’m 99 now, can you imagine?" laughs iconic photojournalist David Douglas Duncan. "With all modesty, I’ve had more curiosity, I think, than any other photographer—between Picasso, War, the Kremlin, Palestine, Saudi Arabia—and I’ve lived longer."

Duncan, also known simply by his monogram DDD, has covered many subjects during his career. One of his first sets of images came from a hotel fire near his university. Duncan noticed a guest attempting to reenter the burning building to save a suitcase and photographed the scene. It turned out this guest was the infamous gangster and bank robber John Dillinger, who was attempting to save a suitcase of stolen cash. While these images were lost, the moment sparked Duncan’s passion for journalism.

From here, Duncan submitted photo stories to newspapers and magazines such as The Kansas City Star, LIFE and National Geographic before enlisting in the Marines as a combat photographer. He covered World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Duncan covered conflicts in Turkey, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East as a full-time LIFE Magazine photographer. And he spent many years photographing his friend and neighbor Pablo Picasso, resulting in six books about the artist.

With so much experience and 27 books already published, it could be easy for the 99-year-old to relax, but Duncan has just published his 28th book, My 20th Century (Arcade Publishing, 2015). While you may expect a book with that title to move chronologically, Duncan has deliberately avoided that structure, methodically choosing images that are personally and historically significant, and connecting the dots in a visually thematic way.


A Japanese officer helps the U.S. Marines during WWII Operation "Victor V."

Over the phone from his home in France, Duncan enthusiastically guides me through the pages. He directs me to a layout in the middle of the book.


Because of Duncan’s relationship with Richard Nixon during WWII, the photographer was asked to cover the 1968 presidential primaries and shot Nixon’s party acceptance speech from just below the podium.

"You see exactly how the time frame isn’t important. It’s the picture frame. That’s off the coast of Peru in 1939, an expedition for the American Museum of Natural History. Guano, it’s a source of fertilizer—those mounds in the foreground. But that’s not the point. The point is that on these two pages, the sky is full, full, full of thousands and thousands of cormorants, right?" asks Duncan, his voice full and animated.

"Okay, you go to the next page, and the sky is full of American Marine bombers and fighters, with a traitor, a Japanese officer in the foreground, going in to bomb the headquarters of the Philippine Islands. So we go from birds to planes. Visually, I hope people understand that I’m trying to say, look, there are two ways to see things in the air.


While documenting a Berber village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco during 1955, Duncan was amazed by the culture’s gender equality, as a woman was found innocent of adultery by the village elders.

"You go to the next page," he continues. "I’m on the Missouri, only two weeks later—and I was from Missouri, Kansas City—and the Battleship Missouri was host battleship for the surrender in Japan.

"The subject decides for me," Duncan says. "It would be ridiculous to photograph [Picasso’s] paintings in black-and-white. You have to shoot them in color."

"The next page is a year later. We’re off the coast of Palestine. These people are the refugees from Buchenwald. And Palestine today is a big problem. Nobody talks about the settlements, so I think the book is a very clear portrayal of the roots of history for the last 50, 60, 70 years. I’ve tried to connect history."

As we move through the book, jumping through time, we’re also jumping between images in black-and-white versus color. I ask Duncan if he has a preference.

"The subject decides for me," Duncan says. "It would be ridiculous to photograph [Picasso’s] paintings in black-and-white. You have to shoot them in color."


Prince Faisal was appointed Crown Prince in 1953, after his older brother became King of Saudi Arabia. Faisal later ascended to the throne in 1964 and was assassinated by his nephew in 1975.


Cormorants nesting on the slopes of San Lorenzo Island in Peru, shot by Duncan in 1939 on an expedition for the Lerner American Museum of Natural History.

I can hear Duncan shuffling through the book for an example. "On pages 86 and 87, there are two pictures side by side. Here’s Picasso in an identical headdress as [Chief Ben] Stiffarm on the right. Each would be okay, but what’s more effective?"

"It’s funny how your life connects you to a lot of people, that’s for sure. Life is really just one big river. You go down it."

Duncan moves backward two pages. "A picture that probably is the most effective group photograph I’ve ever shot in my life. Ever. Not one woman today has the privilege of the Berber women up in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco in 1955, who the men are defending," he says. Duncan spent time documenting the Berber culture, which is based on tribal social structure. The image shows a woman on trial for adultery who is then found innocent by the village elders.

"Two pages back, I go back to the death of Abdul Ibn Saud. The picture is 18 princes side by side. These are the sons of Abdul Saud. In Islam, you’re only supposed to have four wives. There are 18 sons, ranging from probably about 14 to maybe 60. Where are the daughters? There are no princesses of any age visible," describes Duncan.


Duncan stood aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay to document the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender that ended WWII on September 2, 1945. Duncan wrote a letter to his parents that said simply, "Dear Mother and Dad, This is the Day! Love Dave".

He then connects the two images. "Here, at the same time, one woman is visible versus many not visible at all."

As we continue to move backward through the book, I ask Duncan about his war photography.

"That’s where I originally met Richard Nixon," says Duncan, referring to World War II. "He was in control of a little observation plane over Bougainville. He was also supplying ammunition and food to Fijian guerrillas on the top of the mountains in Bougainville. I joined them for
a month, back in the Japanese lines. He made the photograph of me coming down out of the top of Bougainville on the back jacket.


The Khe Sanh Marines go home on February 8, 1968. This is Duncan’s last photography in Vietnam.


Eighteen sons of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud after the death of their father at the Royal Palace, Jeddah, in 1953.

"It’s funny how your life connects you to a lot of people, that’s for sure. Life is really just one big river. You go down it. Nixon said, ‘I’m going to run for president. Do you want to try to photograph it?’ We live in the south of France, so I flew to Miami Beach, where he got the nomination."

Duncan believes the impact of digital technology is far-reaching, noting, "Everybody is a photographer now. It’s rather difficult for old professionals, but it’s wonderful for reporting the news. Probably the most fabulous picture out of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, at the prison, of the poor guy covered with a black cloak, his arms out. He looked like Christ being crucified. And a soldier shot it and sent it to his family. That was the number-one picture out of Iraq. Not by a pro, but by a soldier. It’s a different world!"

Duncan directs me to a page toward the end of his book, to an image of Nixon writing his party acceptance speech. "He didn’t have a speech writer," says Duncan. "He wrote every word himself, Nixon. And, in the next shot, I’m right under the podium where he’s giving the speech."

During Duncan’s convention coverage, the head of NBC News Reuven Frank asked if he would want to try a five-minute television spot to show his images and provide commentary. I ask Duncan about the experience of working in a different type of platform.

"I forgot about that, sure! I had an NBC program! I came right after Huntley-Brinkley for five minutes at 7:05. They gave me total freedom to say anything I wanted to say. And I kept saying what I was thinking. And they kept moving me back and back and back," reminisces Duncan. "But I had a hell of a lot of fun, I should tell you!"

While the television spot didn’t work out in the long run, Duncan’s openness to experimentation did bring a new format to viewers. This unrestricted spirit is what initially introduced Nikon lenses to American photographers years before. He was shown the lens brand by a Japanese photographer while stationed in Japan and was impressed by the quality, then replaced all his own lenses.

"I switched in my life from a Rolleiflex system to the Nikon," notes Duncan. "The first page in the book, it really shows the history of different kinds of cameras I’ve used."

And Duncan’s openness to new technology doesn’t stop there. "Today, I’m not shooting the big Leicas," he says. "I’m shooting with a $300 camera. Amateur. Digital. Really fantastic. I have it on my belt all the time. It weighs nothing, and the print is unbelievable."

Duncan believes the impact of digital technology is far-reaching, noting, "Everybody is a photographer now. It’s rather difficult for old professionals, but it’s wonderful for reporting the news. Probably the most fabulous picture out of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, at the prison, of the poor guy covered with a black cloak, his arms out. He looked like Christ being crucified. And a soldier shot it and sent it to his family. That was the number-one picture out of Iraq. Not by a pro, but by a soldier. It’s a different world!"

Duncan muses about how his images will contribute to the present day. He’s planning to send his book to two of the princes he befriended while shooting in the Middle East in hopes of providing a book donation to schools in Saudi Arabia. He has also passed the book along to other current-day influencers.

"There was a story in The New Yorker about Mark Zuckerberg. He finally got religion," Duncan jokes, referring to Zuckerberg’s 2015 challenge to read a new book every other week to learn more about various cultures, histories and technologies. "I sent him a copy of the book. I’m optimistic. You have to play your luck in this business."

David Douglas Duncan donated his photographic archive and other materials to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Learn more about the permanent exhibit at www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/web/ddd.

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