“Some days a darned good business . . . and every day a fabulous life.” This quote hailed from a 1971 notebook of David Douglas Duncan, a distinguished American photojournalist who turned 100 last month. Duncan is best known for his coverage of conflict, beginning with his service as a combat photographer in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, followed by the Korean War, the Vietnam War and conflicts in the Middle East.
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin set about to honor this photographer, a continued supporter of their department, having donated his archive to the center in 1996. This spirit of giving back is not unusual for Duncan. The royalties from his first book, “This is War!” a volume of his work from Korea, went to a fund for widows and children of Marines who did not make it home.
Jessica McDonald, the Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson curator of photography at the Ransom Center, told In Sight, “We all felt that Duncan’s 100th birthday was a great occasion for celebrating his contributions to photography over a remarkably long career, and for acknowledging his generosity to us for the last twenty years.” To do this, she set about publishing a series of blog posts, one during each week of Duncan’s birthday month, with personal reflections from contributors who had been deeply impacted by his work.
The contributors have varied connections to Duncan. Photojournalist Louie Palu wrote in his essay for the Ransom Center, “Duncan’s photographs provide a quiet moment of reflection on a traumatic period of time we can all learn from, and will hopefully never experience. They remind me, and should remind all of us, of the importance of bearing witness.”
Roy Flukinger, senior research curator of photography at the Ransom Center, described his fascination with Duncan’s portrait of Capt. Ike Fenton. “Beyond the man’s ‘thousand-yard stare’ as some have called it, I have always been taken by its utter stillness — especially since its framework is the midst of battle. Captain Fenton is a man without a mask, staring at Duncan’s camera without really seeing it.”
Beyond his photographs, Mary Alice Harper, head of visual materials cataloging at the Ransom Center, noted Duncan’s character. She first met him in 1998. “He turned to me with a gaze that was at once open, inquisitive, respectful, and intense. And in that instant I understood how he gained the trust of all who passed before his lens …”