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From gruesome wars to Picasso portraits: KC-born photographer David Douglas Duncan dies

KC native David Douglas Duncan dies at 102

Esteemed photojournalist and Kansas City native David Douglas Duncan died June 7, 2018, at 102. He was widely considered one of the finest photojournalists of the 20th century.
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Esteemed photojournalist and Kansas City native David Douglas Duncan died June 7, 2018, at 102. He was widely considered one of the finest photojournalists of the 20th century.

David Duncan Douglas, a Kansas City native and internationally recognized photojournalist, died Thursday at his home in France at the age of 102.

Douglas was known for his historic work depicting the battlefields of World War II and for his close relationship with artist Pablo Picasso.

Duncan, who was born to Kenneth and Florence (Watson) Duncan on Jan. 23, 1916, was widely considered one of the finest photojournalists of the 20th century.

In Life magazine photo essays, television specials and about two dozen books, he captured the seemingly incongruous subjects of war and art, traveling from the front lines of battle to the treasure troves of the Kremlin in Moscow and the French studio of Pablo Picasso.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art recognized the photographer on its website Thursday.

"His generosity and love of Kansas City will always be remembered, as will his vigor and relentless energy in photographing the world around him," the post said.

Julián Zugazagoitia, director and CEO of the museum, knew Duncan and his wife, Sheila, personally.

“I have tremendous respect and affection for them both," Zugazagoitia said.

"David was very proud of his Kansas City roots and to have traveled the world. He settled after a nomadic life in the South of France to be close to his friend, Picasso.

"David’s love of observing the world through his camera lens never faltered, and he lived a long and rich life. We will miss him very much.”

The museum's recent show, "Through the Eyes of Picasso," showed the artist's work and illustrated the close relationship between the two men.

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.

"He documented his century and he shared his art and vision with Kansas City by donating not only his photographs to the Nelson-Atkins, but his books as a present to his hometown," Zugazagoitia said.

In 2015 Duncan spoke to The Star about his 28th and final book, "My 20th Century."

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.”

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.

When asked by The Star in 2015 if he had any regrets, he answered by phone from his home in France: “I don’t regret a damned thing. I have been so lucky!

"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."

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.

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 grandmother threading a needle with the help of a granddaughter was taken in 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 "My 20th Century" 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.

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.

Then came Vietnam, more gritty combat shots with his beloved Marines, two more book compilations: “I Protest!” (1968) and “War Without Heroes” (1970).

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.

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.”

But in Life magazine photo essays, television specials and about two dozen books, he captured with grace the seemingly incongruous subjects of war and art, traveling from the front lines of battle to the treasure troves of the Kremlin in Moscow and the French studio of Pablo Picasso.

From 1956 until the artist's death in 1973, Duncan took an estimated 50,000 photographs of Picasso and his work, beginning with an image of Picasso in his bathtub, smiling and scrubbing behind his ear.

Duncan told the Sunday Times of London that Picasso's lover, Jacqueline Roque, had greeted at him at the door at that first meeting.

"Without a word she took me by the hand," he said. "We went past a goat called Esmeralda on the stairs, through a sitting room with a couple of sketches on the wall, through a dark corridor and there was Picasso, just sitting there in a bathtub."

His marriage to Leila Khanki, in 1947, ended in divorce. He married Sheila Macauley in 1962. She is his only immediate survivor.

He died of a pulmonary infection at a hospital in Grasse, France, according to French news reports.

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