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Veterans Day conversation with photojournalist (and Marine) David Douglas Duncan

By Roy Flukinger

The Ransom Center holds the archive of American photojournalist and author David Douglas Duncan, including his images of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. In honor of Veterans Day, Ransom Center Research Curator of Photography Roy Flukinger asked Duncan about photography, being a Marine, his experiences as a combat photographer, and his prediction about the next generation of war photographers. Below are Duncan’s responses, submitted in writing from his home in France.

 

Materials from Duncan’s archive can be seen in the Ransom Center’s online exhibition. More than 50 of Duncan’s photographs of Pablo Picasso and Jacqueline Roque are currently on view in New York City in the Pace Gallery’s exhibition Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style.”

 

So many of today’s photojournalists are civilians with media credentials. In contrast, during many of the conflicts that you covered, you were a Marine, first on active duty and then as a veteran, working as a combat photographer. How would you characterize the critical difference this has made in your photography and in working with military personnel?
As a Marine I always worked alone, my notes for every shot plugged into my memory—never a notebook. All of the guys around me were Marines, and, as we all knew, if one got zapped, other vertical guys would somehow get you out—to be patched up or shipped home.

 

Today, much of the memorable coverage has been shot by amateurs with cell phones, not Washington/Army “implanted” pros—think Abu Gharib.

 


You wrote in This Is War! that “There is neither climax nor conclusion to this book.” And you repeated the phrase in the foreword to your Vietnam book, War Without Heroes. Having now completed decades of covering numerous conflicts throughout the globe, would you say that the same statement is appropriate to describing all wars and that future combat photographers will also find it impossible to tell the whole story?

There is no “whole story” in combat photography—only fragments of each moment that sometimes/often seems like eternity… and in that jungle, on that strip of obscene discolored far-from-home sand, the Marine at your shoulder is your only relative in that world—unlike no other but still precious and even long-loved by those who survived to come home to the world where almost every combat Marine is often a stranger even among his own family and friends… and then, confined to a veteran’s bed where the nights were often worse than that sandy beach or sodden jungle fox-hole where it was still possible to dream of everything, including tomorrow.

 

The men who fought the battles, who lived and died, who shared the service alongside you are clearly more than just the subjects of your camera. When we hung your exhibition and looked through your books you frequently recalled their names and shared many anecdotes about them. And the ones I met certainly remembered you. Is this a special relationship that is shared between veterans, that goes beyond just the basic reportorial dimensions of your picture stories?
One would doubt that other lives are so enriched as those of the Marines who were my combat friends…. yet, say among many lifelong career pros, the Formula One race drivers where everything can explode in fractions of a second… where they are wheel-to-wheel at 300 kilometers-an-hour and sure of the other driver’s professionalism and nerves under constant lethal pressure… yes, there must be other lives similar where the risks and lifelong friendships could well be similar to those of veteran Marines.

 

You revolutionized your field with the adoption of Nikon lenses and later technological advances.Have the digital and electronic changes we have witnessed in the last generation of photojournalism made it easier or harder to tell the story of war correctly and fully?

 

Digital cameras/smart phones even iPads, as seen everywhere, among tourists, children, hobbling ancients, workmen everywhere reporting back to control offices somewhere faraway—everybody is a photographer today. No sweat—and many among that digital-loaded horde are very, very good photographers, having fun—their generation/taking it for granted and surely filling souvenir books at home sometimes/possibly often holding masterpieces.

 

You have already provided us with a lifetime of words and photographs on the subject. Are there other aspects of the story of war that you might wish to see the next generation of combat photographers address more completely on future Veterans Days?
The next generation of war photographers? ……drones!

 

 

For his most famous child portrait, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) drew inspiration from an eighteenth-century painting

By Roy Flukinger

The Ransom Center recently launched a new platform of digital collections on its website, which includes the Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) photography collection. More than 50 items from that collection, including the portraits highlighted in this blog post, can be viewed on the new platform.

 

Posing for the Rev. Charles L. Dodgson (1832–1898) for over a dozen years, Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin (1864–1925) grows up before our eyes through the series of portraits made of her during the 1860s and 1870s. Named after Princess (later Queen) Alexandra, who was a close friend of her mother, Xie (pronounced “Ecksy”) was the daughter of a clerical colleague of Dodgson’s at Christ Church College in Oxford. She began sitting for Dodgson’s tableaux at the early age of four, and, by at least one historian’s count, sat for him more than 50 times before she turned 16. Several other children—or “child-friends”—that Dodgson photographed were quickly bored with dressing up and sitting for long poses before the camera, but Xie participated well into her teens and is frequently referenced in the photographer’s diaries.

 

Dodgson’s first, or “seated,” portrait of the costumed Xie is directly influenced by one of the greatest child portraits of the Georgian Era, Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting of Penelope Boothby (1785–1791). Penelope, the only child and heir of Sir Brooke Boothby, the seventh baronet, and his wife, Susanna, was painted at the age of three in Reynolds’s London studio in July 1788. By all accounts, Reynolds enjoyed the company of small children as much as Dodgson and had a fine relationship with the young Penelope throughout their sessions. Art historians attribute the endearing quality of the painting to their brief but strong personal bond.

 

Another factor contributing to the painting’s fame was the tragic fate of its sitter. Young Penelope would spend the remainder of her short life at the family estate at Ashbourne Hall in Derbyshire. She died apparently of encephalitis in 1791, a month before her sixth birthday. Her death led to the tragic collapse of her parents’ marriage. After the final breakup of the family estate, this most successful of Reynolds’s child portraits eventually found its way to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Dodgson undoubtedly fell under its spell a half century later.

 

Dodgson posed a costumed but clearly older Xie in a position similar to the Reynolds painting. He also had her stand in costume for a second pose. For the final image from the series, he brought into his studio a wicker chaise and an Oriental parasol, had Xie remove her oversized “Mob-Cap” bonnet, and placed her in semi-recline in the chaise. The resulting tableau, an original Dodgson composition combined with Xie’s own studied gaze, would become one of the great child portraits of the Victorian Era.

 

Dodgson, who gained early fame in mathematics and literature under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, remained an avid photographer for 25 years until abandoning the art in 1880. He retired from teaching the following year but stayed in Oxford, writing about mathematics until his death in 1898. Xie Kitchin published no memoirs or reminiscences of her friendship with Dodgson, but she would go on to marry and live in London until her death in 1925. Interestingly, the first of her six children was named Penelope.

 

Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.