David Douglas Duncan: The Making of a Master

Duncan and his, wife, Sheila, live in Castellaras, an idyllic hilltop village in southern France, far in distance and time from the thunder of cannons that were once all too familiar to the legendary LIFE magazine photographer. They have traveled to Geneva to attend the opening of an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery celebrating the photography of André Villers, who also worked closely with their mutual friend Picasso. The results of Duncan’s own long-term relationship with the famed Spanish artist are on permanent display at the Rosengart Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland.
The camera-in-hand exploits of the Kansas City, Missouri-born Duncan during World War II and the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and other hot spots around the globe are well-documented, but the road to what got him there is far less traveled. His latest book, My 20th Century (Arcade), published on the eve of his January 23, 2016 centennial, relates known, little-known and unknown stories of a camera-toting witness to arguably the most turbulent 100 years in history.

We’re thrilled to be featuring you for your 100th birthday.
That’s a long way away, buddy boy! It’s day to day.

I’ve interviewed many of your LIFE colleagues, including Alfred Eisenstaedt, Carl Mydans and Horace Bristol. It’s fascinating how their careers evolved from such diverse backgrounds. Eisie was originally a belt-and-button salesman in his native Germany. You had the idea of becoming an archeologist.
That’s right. At the University of Arizona in 1934.

Why the interest in that field?
I was born in Kansas City. Just to go to Denver, 600 miles away, took maybe two days. The roads were that bad in those days. I had never been to St. Louis. Never been to Minneapolis. I had never been anyplace. But there’s a wonderful museum in Kansas City: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. They had all sorts of wonderful things. That inspired me. But more than that, I just had the wanderlust. So I went from Kansas City to the University of Arizona and met Byron Cummings, head of the archaeology department and director of the Arizona State Museum. He stirred my interest. I was out of school much of the time in the mountains doing fieldwork on the Mexican-American border. I took a particular interest in Latin American history and Spanish, and one thing led to another. I switched from the University of Arizona to the University of Miami in Coral Gables. I switched to Marine Zoology, and continued studying Spanish. I was in the Everglades half of the time. I did diving all over the Florida Keys. It was a fabulous time.

Did you take photographs while you were in school?
All the time with a little folding Kodak. My friend Bill Britton and I drove down to Acapulco in 1937. No tourists were there yet. I made a shot of a fisherman casting his net. It won a prize at the local newspaper, the Miami Daily News. Then I entered it in the National Newspaper Kodak Contest and won second prize, winning $250. With the money I got a Graflex D with a Cooke F2.8 lens that put me on my way.

When World War II broke out did you join the military right away as a photographer?
Not at all. I tried to stay out of it to do my work in Latin America. I was about to travel from Mexico down to Panama when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs wanted me to continue my work in Latin America documenting natural resources. I was in Mexico City and got a phone call from one of my friends on Easter Sunday, 1942. They told me that Britton had been killed in a plane crash over Miami. He had been training young pilots to fly in World War II. Another instructor was flying over Miami and he cut the tail off Bill’s plane. His father, the great welterweight boxing champion Jack Britton, had a drugstore on 36th Street, and Bill’s plane crashed in the middle of the street practically right in front of his father’s drugstore. Unbelievable. Anyway, so many memories. That’s the way My 20th Century is arranged, by memories, not chronologically.

I joined the Marine Corps in 1943 as a combat photographer and had the extraordinary orders to request seats on a plane and go anyplace in the Pacific. After two years of covering the war I ended up on board the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender in September 1945. Photographer J.R. Eyerman, who was on staff at LIFE, was on board as well. He said, “If you’re looking for a job, come to New York.” So I did in March 1946. I was still in uniform, in fact, and showed some prints from Mexico and Kansas City to Wilson Hicks, the photo editor of LIFE. Wilson said, “I need someone to go to Persia—to Iran—because the Russians are threatening Tehran.” Three days later I was on my way there as a LIFE photographer.

Horace Bristol did not get along particularly well with Hicks. Did you?
Very much so. When Hicks was finally relieved from his job at LIFE he went down to the University of Miami, where he taught photojournalism. Horace was with Steichen’s outfit in the Pacific and with Eisenstaedt in Times Square when Eisie did his most famous shot there. After the war he created the East-West Photo Agency in Tokyo. Their office was right opposite the door of the Time-Life office; that’s how we met. That’s when I put a Nikkor lens on my World War II Leica and it changed the whole ballgame.

Horace told me about your association with Jun Miki and how Nikon became known in the U.S.
Miki was a stringer for LIFE at the time. He had a Nikkor lens on a Leica. I asked who made it. He told me Nikon. They had to make a collar so the Nikkor lens could go on a Leica. We went to the factory, which had not been bombed, and checked out their lenses. Masao Nagaoka was the head of Nikon at that time.

What could the Nikkor lenses do that you weren’t getting with your existing lenses?
They were sharper and brighter. During the Korean War I carried two Leica IIIC camera bodies loaded with Eastman Super-XX film—one with a Nikkor 50mm f1.5, then later the f1.4; the other with a telephoto, a Nikkor 135mm, F3.5. I was shooting the stuff in Korea and the guys in New York were asking, “What’s going on?” “Oh, he’s got these funny little lenses on his Leica.” Nobody had ever heard of Nikon. Some guy from The New York Times wrote a story about it, and that put Nikon on the map.

You were in Japan for a LIFE magazine feature on the country’s art when the North Koreans came down across the 38th parallel. Were you the first Western photographer to cover the war?
One of the first. I was visiting Haru Matsukata, who was a great friend of the Bristols, when we heard the news. I don’t remember if Horace was there that time or not. Haru later became the wife of Edwin Reischauer, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. We were down at Haru’s summerhouse in Misaki when a fisherman named Watanabe came up from the beach with a whole basket of local seafood and said something to Haru. She translated: North Korea had just invaded South Korea. That was the 25th of June 1950. We went back up to Tokyo and I caught a DC-3 used by the military to Korea. Another photographer, Charlie Rosecrans, was on the same plane.

You covered some of the most intense battles of the war, including the carnage that took place around the Chosin Reservoir.
When MacArthur went north of the 38th parallel and eventually toward the Yalu it brought the Chinese in. It was winter. It was a blizzard. The Chinese were all around us. It was 35 degrees below zero. I walked the whole way out.

You must have been in constant danger trying to make your way to the relative safety of South Korea.
I walked through North Korean villages without the slightest look of animosity on the people’s faces. At that time there was no problem. That came later. The North Korean citizens were lovely. Not one hand was raised against me, and I was walking by myself. They were concerned as much by the Chinese as we were. They were being driven down to Hungnam by the Chinese as well. Thousands came to the beach to try and get evacuated. There’s a picture in my book Yankee Nomad of a young North Korean girl in tears because the American colonel in the area had requested a fire lane through her village and a guy came and bulldozed everything, including her home. I tried to stop him, but he said, “I’ve got orders.”

Did you ever talk with General MacArthur?
He was charming. He flew into Suwon in the Bataan, his personal plane, then took a convoy of jeeps up to Seoul. On the way back a plane came down, strafing the road. MacArthur sat in his jeep. He didn’t take cover in the fields like the rest of us, including [South Korean president] Syngman Rhee, who had flown in to meet MacArthur. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

At one point I went up to MacArthur and said, “General, excuse me, I’m a friend of Carl Mydans and Carl is coming over later.” [Mydans took the most widely published photograph of MacArthur returning to the Philippines in October 1944.] This lovely sort of softening came over his face. I then asked, “I’ve finished my shooting here, may I have a ride back to Tokyo?” He said, “Yes, of course.” A guy named Tony Story was his pilot. I’m sitting in the back of the plane and MacArthur’s Filipino aide comes back and asks, “How would you like it?” “Like what?” “I’m sure you haven’t had lunch or dinner for awhile, so how would you like your steak?” After the meal I asked, “Excuse me. Do you have some paper I might be able to send my film back to New York in?” I had about eight rolls of film. He brought me the paper the steak had been in. So my film went back wrapped in this bloodstained paper, and the guys in New York thought, “This guy’s really been in battle!”

Did you agree with Truman’s decision to relieve MacArthur of his command?
Carl Mydans and I were asked to go on television to discuss that when we were back in New York. I said, “Look, I was in Tokyo when the whole thing started, and the young guys who went over to Korea had been part of the occupation forces with no anticipation that there might be trouble anyplace. They brought in their guitars and harmonicas, they thought it was going to be a picnic. General MacArthur was unrealistic in keeping his occupation troops unprepared. I think it was a damn good idea to fire him.”

Away from the battlefields you built a long-term working relationship with Pablo Picasso. How did that come about?
Bob Capa said, “Look, if you go through the south of France, go see Picasso. He’s a friend of mine.” A few years later I was going to Morocco from Rome and went through Cannes. I called the house, and Jacqueline Roque, who later became Mrs. Picasso, answered the phone. She said if Capa was a friend of yours [he had been killed by a landmine in Indochina in 1954], come up to the house. She told me how to get there and met me at the door. She was very small and all dressed in black. Picasso was in the bathtub. That’s where I made my first shot of him.

Is it because of Picasso that you ended up moving to France near where you worked with him until his death in 1973?
It happened coincidently. We’re about 10 kilometers north of where Picasso’s house was at that time. It was Yul Brenner who had heard about a development where we live now. There were only five or so houses then; now there are 80. I looked it over and thought it was interesting. This was over 50 years ago. It cost nothing to build then.

One of your cameras used to photograph Picasso sold for an incredible amount of money a couple of years ago. What’s the story behind it?
Leica made four M3Ds for me in 1955. They’re very silent and had a different type of rapid winder on the bottom. I bought them for $375 in Wetzlar, Germany. I gave Number 1 to my archive in Texas. Number 4 I gave to Jun Miki up on the stage at a press event in Tokyo in a convention-type hall in front of the grand central station in Tokyo. I said, “Miki, here’s a present for you in memory of all our time together.” He opened it like a prizefighter and said, “It’s Dave’s Leica!” The whole place burst into applause. It was a Leica in a Nikon box. Nikon made the box for me with flowers. They made the box with enthusiasm.

When Miki passed away I told his son, Hiromitsu, that he should sell the camera to take care of his mother, who was quite ill. “No, you gave it to my father.” I said, “No, sell it.” It was sold in Bangkok and is still there. Cameras 2 and 3, I sold one of them to fellows from Leica in Wetzlar—they still have it—and the other one I sold to a former Marine for about $80,000. He sold it through the WestLicht Photographica Auction in Vienna in 2012 for $2,180,000 dollars! The guy who bought it is a very prominent Chinese man living in Hong Kong named Douglas. Unbelievable!

Fact File
All photographs copyright David Douglas Duncan. All images courtesy Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing (www.skyhorsepublishing.com) and The David Douglas Duncan Archive, Harry Ransom Center: The University of Texas at Austin (www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/web/ddd). Special thanks to the Switzerland (www.myswitzerland.com) and Geneva (www.Geneva-Tourism.CH) tourism boards for their generous assistance.

Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3 Photo 4 Photo 5 Photo 6
Marines advance into enemy fire during the Korean War, 1950