Books

KC-born photographer David Douglas Duncan was an eyewitness to history

Duncan had unprecedented access to photograph his friend Pablo Picasso at Picasso’s Villa La Califonrie in Cannes, France: “My first photograph of soon thousands,” Duncan writes.
Duncan had unprecedented access to photograph his friend Pablo Picasso at Picasso’s Villa La Califonrie in Cannes, France: “My first photograph of soon thousands,” Duncan writes. David Douglas Duncan

The “1,000-yard stare” was captured so well over three wars: dirty, stubbled faces, sunken eyes that have seen too much war.

“Manchurian border Siberian wind 40 below zero,” one caption reads. “Chinese everywhere North Korea December 1950.”

The haunted, haunting expression of the young Marine was frozen forever during the “Big Bug Out,” the bloody retreat in the face of hundreds of thousands of attacking Chinese volunteers whom the top brass and intel types had said were not there.

It’s part of “My 20th Century,” a new collection of old images shot by the world-acclaimed — and born in Kansas City — photographer David Douglas Duncan.

As Duncan turned 99 in January, it’s fairly apt as a title for a final, 28th book.

He now dwells in Castellaras, a hilltop village on the coast of southern France, not far from Mougins, where his most famous friend, Pablo Picasso, lived his last dozen years.

Chronologically jumbled, the book begins and ends with some candid snaps of his latest dog, Duzi. You learn in the first pages how this beloved companion was being put to bed when Duncan tripped and broke a hip.

This led to “30 Nights and Days of One Life in One Room.”

Not until four pages from its end does he explain this theme — “every night memories of my world as a photographer.” And truly, his terse, punctuation-be-damned captions with the photos could almost be the troubled mumblings of a fevered man in a hospital bed.

“Treason! Japanese officer aiding US Marine bombing and napalm attack Mindanao Philippine Islands 10th August 1945: Copilot from cockpit ‘Russia declared war against Japan’ No bombing/casualties/cost: Hiroshima Nagasaki radioactive”

But you’re not picking up this book for the words.

Duncan was one of the greats, along with Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Gordon Parks, John Dominis and Ralph Morse, who brought readers to the cover of Life magazine.

His shutter clicked aboard the USS Missouri when the Japanese surrendered, in a Seoul street as American tanks dueled with North Korean gunners, in Picasso’s bathroom with the artist in the tub, off the Haifa shore as Holocaust survivors arrived in Palestine in over-crowded boats, in the New Delhi room with Lord Mountbatten and the nearly naked Gandhi as the British Empire split asunder.

He couldn’t be everywhere, but the range of Duncan’s camera work sometimes makes you wonder.

Was there anything he missed that he regrets today?

“I don’t regret a damned thing. I have been so lucky!” Duncan said over the phone from his home on a rainy day on the Cote d’Azur. “In the first place, I’m 99 years old, come from Kansas City, Southwest High School, and I’ve seen more than anyone in photojournalism of my time.”

This reviewer remembers very well when he took us into Khe Sanh with the surrounded and besieged Marines in the Vietnamese highlands. The sniper team he documented in Life used the same Remington rifle I had at home. I remember his grim, half-light take on the body bags lined up to go aboard a chopper, too.

A little history: As a young man on the hunt for adventure — he tells of capturing a timber rattler in Swope Park and carrying it home in a bag — Duncan took his camera to the Southwest.

The story is often told that he unwittingly photographed a man desperately trying to get back into a burning Tucson, Ariz., hotel. It turned out to be John Dillinger, whose valise — apparently full of bank robbery proceeds — was retrieved for him by a helpful fireman.

Duncan’s talent as a freelance photographer was not missed. The Star ran his shots for $3 apiece — “Those editors gave me my launch in the 1930s,” he said gratefully — then he got noticed by National Geographic. His first sale to Life dates to 1939, catching an explosion of feathers during a Missouri quail hunt; the birds flushed from a long-vanished field down Wornall Road a bit, he recalled.

A grandmother threading a needle with the help of a granddaughter is here from 1936, as is a nighttime shot of — you can take the boy out of Kansas City, but you can’t take Kansas City out of the boy’s boxes of slides — the Christmas-lit Country Club Plaza.

World War II got him out of Missouri and into the South Pacific as a Marine officer and combat photographer. In the Bougainville campaign, as the book shows, he went into the jungle with Fiji fighters.

Climbing aboard aircraft, he once was hit by shrapnel; another time he rode in a tank slung below a P-38 fighter, so overheated he lost 11 pounds during the low-level flight. He would come out of the war with a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.

He acquired a long-lasting friendship with a Navy transport officer, Lt. Richard M. Nixon. This intriguing relationship pops up a couple of places in the book: One is the inside cover snap of Duncan as a young Marine taken by Nixon; another are photographs of Nixon, alone in a Miami Beach hotel room, writing his acceptance speech at the 1968 convention, then giving it.

“Failed Dreamer ‘Together we will soon climb the highest mountain,’” Duncan writes. “My friend from Bougainville.”

These Nixon photos are contained in an earlier book, “Self Portrait: U.S.A.” For it, Duncan went to both conventions and was on the streets of Chicago amid the tear gas, although no image of it is found in this book.

“I was out there with them,” he said. “It was after I was in Vietnam; nothing much, some heads getting thumped.”

After the big war, Life took him on its staff and before long sent him into a little one. He had been in Japan for a piece on its art when the North Koreans came over the 38th Parallel. By luck he got “in country” before any other news photographer; his lenses had five days of exclusive shooting to send home to a news-hungry public. He told of being “scared stiff” that the American lines would not hold in the first terrible days.

The royalties of his first book of images, “This Is War,” out in 1951, went to the widows and orphans made by that fighting.

One of the shots published here, he said, was the first photograph of jet aircraft in war. He is riding in the cockpit of a Starfighter, catching another as it hurls rockets at an enemy tank.

Then came Vietnam, more gritty combat shots with his beloved Marines, two more book compilations: “I Protest!” (1968) and “War Without Heroes” (1970). Personally, as a veteran of that era, I feel this book goes too light on Vietnam.

He did leave the place for good in early ’68, when there was plenty of death still to be dealt out. Larry Burrows, as identified with gut-punching photography in Vietnam as Duncan had been in Korea, was shot down in 1971 over Laos. Back home, Duncan spoke of those nameless Marines in their body bags waiting for their ride out as a moment of clarity.

“The price was too high.” he said. In three months, he was declaring the war lost.

In 1971, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art did a color show from Duncan’s travels; then, as a result, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York followed up the next year.

In October 2013, Duncan gave the Nelson 161 photographs for its permanent collection, mostly taken over a period of nearly two decades at the home of Picasso. Julián Zugazagoitia, museum director, called it “a most incredible gift from one of the premier photographers of the world.”

Duncan likes Zugazagoitia, but he’s not happy that his prints are now in storage. “There are museums in Europe that would want them,” he believes.

Three other Duncan photos from Korea can be seen now at the Nelson’s “American Soldier,” an exhibit of images from the Civil War to recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It runs through June 21. Those pictures were acquired by the Hallmark Collection in 1997 and then gifted to the Nelson in 2005.

Duncan’s ego was sometimes called monumental; he himself said his success came from “taking a camera and shoving it down the throat of where I’ve been.” Those cameras, by the way, “voiceless” Leicas made for him in the 1950s, auctioned for more than $2 million apiece as collectors’ pieces.

His last volume dedicated to the artist, “Goodbye Picasso,” infuriated The Star’s art critic for how Duncan injected himself in so much of the copy.

Yes, Duncan did get very close to the artist, who made a dog bowl for Duncan’s dog, Lump, and then painted him into a masterwork. But this love affair, filling more than a half-dozen of Duncan’s books, consumes 20 photographs here. Don’t take this the wrong way; some are excellent and thought-provoking, but some — do we really need Lump in a gull-wing Mercedes coupe? — take space that I would have preferred be dedicated to, if not ’Nam, or the French fighting in Indochina, then at least more from his “Nomad” essays.

Yes, I should buy the 500-image book, a five-year-project gleaned from a half-million images, called “Yankee Nomad: Photographic Odyssey,” published in 1967.

Several scenes reprinted here are stunning: the Saudi royal family in the early ’50s; a nomadic shepherd in mountainous Iran, and a rape trial in a village of Berbers in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Of the image of a Palestinian and his son trying to plow an impossibly rocky landscape, he observes: “From Gaza and Ghettos Dreaming Fighting and Dying, For This!”

These were from his long Life stint in the Middle East in the years after World War II, hence, another book, “The World of Allah.”

That book was full of admiration for the works of Islam, but Duncan is appalled at violent turmoil today.

“When I was there in the ’50s and ’60s, it was nothing, nothing, nothing but hospitality. Now, I’d be there two weeks, my head would be chopped off. The bottom line: It’s a religious volcano exploding.”

One black-and-white scene, accompanied by the words “General ‘Black Avni’ Turkish cavalry division Russian frontier 1948,” looks exactly like something from the snowy outtakes from the film “Doctor Zhivago.”

From Eastern Europe comes the photo of the back of a thick-necked Communist officer that clearly shouts “Authoritarianism!” even without Duncan’s recollections: “First days of Iron Curtain East-West German border police Soon snipers landmines machineguns murder 1952”

In one crisis, Duncan actually put his camera down. As refugees fled Hungary when the Soviets crushed the revolution there, the photographer spent a month on the border trying to help the victims.

The last four pages are back in the present: “Home!” There’s a snapshot of the dog Duzi “waiting for his world to reappear,” that is, for his master Duncan to get home from the hospital. Indulgent, yes. But the man has nearly reached the century mark, right?

So just enjoy that he made his world reappear for us one last time.

To reach Darryl Levings, who recently retired from The Star, send email to dublevingskc@gmail.com.

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