Internationally-renowned American photojournalist David Douglas Duncan celebrates his 100th birthday on January 23. For decades, Americans at home and abroad learned of world events as they unfolded before Duncan’s camera, first during his service as a combat photographer with Read more
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.
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!
Back in November the exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath opened at its fourth and final venue, the Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition, which I curated with Anne Tucker and Will Michels in my former role in the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, featured over 400 photographic objects dating from 1848 to 2012, including a number of photographs from the Harry Ransom Center’s collections. Our curatorial mission was neither to tell a history of war illustrated by photography nor to present a series on singular photographers. Instead, we hoped to bring together a selection of objects that highlighted the intersections between war and photography.
Photographs from the Ransom Center collections were included throughout the exhibition, enriching the thematic sections that explored daily routine, shell shock, and dissemination, as well as battlefield burial and death. The Gernsheim collection yielded a chilling 1871 print of communards in coffins, an image likely used to discourage further unrest in the streets of Paris, as well as Roger Fenton’s iconic and controversial 1855 photographThe Valley of the Shadow of Death from the Crimean War.
A Ransom Center fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment enabled curator Anne Tucker to spend weeks going through box after box of the Ransom Center’s prints, lantern slides, and stereographs. While in the reading room, she could compare the croppings of multiple photographs of Captain Ike Fenton and the U.S. Marines during the Korean War by David Douglas Duncan and share her findings. She also surveyed the collection of prints made at the height of the civil war in El Salvador by 30 international photographers, including Donna DeCesare and Harry Mattison.
The New York Journal- American photo morgue provided one of my favorite photographs in the exhibition. It is a small print from 1918 of a carrier pigeon being released from a tank on the Western Front. The image itself references one of the means of communication (pigeon transport) that is often associated with World War I, but it is also important as a photographic object because it carries the marks and highlights of an editor’s pencil, readying the print for reproduction and the image for dissemination.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.
Robert Capa (1913–1954), proclaimed “The Greatest War Photographer in the World” by the Picture Post in 1938, famously created some of the only surviving photographs of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in 1944. When his rolls of film arrived for development at the Life magazine office in London,a darkroom assistant was told to rush the processing to get the photographs to New York for publication in the next issue. The assistant placed the newly developed film in a drying cabinet on high heat, melting the emulsion on three of the four rolls. Luckily, ten images from the fourth roll were not entirely destroyed and appeared only “slightly out of focus,” the title Capa would cleverly give to his memoir in 1947. The blurred photographs became known for their sense of drama and immediacy, as Life’s story captions falsely attributed the blur to Capa’s trembling hands.
In the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on view through January 5, this photograph is presented in a way that shows both the front and back of the print. Visitors are able to see the stamps, inscriptions, reference numbers, and notes that trace the trajectory of this individual press print, one of nearly 200,000 recently donated to the Ransom Center. Also on view are four additional photographs from the larger group that constituted Capa’s D-Day picture story, facsimile versions of his handwritten captions submitted to Life magazine, and copies of the June 19, 1944 issue of Life showing how the story was published.
Three years later, Capa and his close friends Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour founded the Magnum Photos agency in the penthouse restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Photographer William Vandivert also joined the group but left after about a year.) These were photographers who had experienced a catastrophic war and were united by their belief in a shared obligation to be the historians of their own causes. Magnum Photos continues to be fully owned and supported by its members, numbering over 100 since its founding in 1947, with offices in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo.
Photography department intern Josephine Minhinnett contributed to this post.
In 1950 photography collector Helmut Gernsheim managed to track down a descendant of photographer Roger Fenton and scored one of the greatest coups of his career: Fenton’s own complete set of Crimean War photographs for a grand total of £50. After closing the deal in the owner’s Farnborough garage, Gernsheim loaded the prints into the trunk of his car and referred to the purchase as “quite a haul.” In 1954, Gernsheim published a book about the 360 mounted salt print photographs of the Crimea that he had purchased from Fenton’s heir.
The Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, was fought mainly on the Crimean Peninsula and was where Florence Nightengale pioneered modern nursing practices. France allied with Turkey and Britain against the Russian Empire in a dispute over the declining Ottoman Empire territories and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over the Russian Orthodox Church in Palestine.
According to Gernsheim, what made the Crimean War so interesting was that “in many respects, it was the last of the old wars, with dandy officers, purchasable commissions and mortar balls; in others, it is the first of modern war, with telegraphic communication, supply railway, efficient nursing and field kitchen and the first to be covered by photographers and newspaper reporters.”
Fenton took up photography in 1851, and by 1852 he was instrumental in founding the Photographic Society of London. For the next few years, Fenton photographed everything from items in the British Museum to the Royal Family.
From 1854 to 1855, under the patronage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Fenton photographed in the Crimea, where Great Britain was fighting an unpopular war against the Russians. In a joint venture between the Crown and the Manchester publisher Agnew & Sons, Fenton said that the images from his photographic campaign were “intended to illustrate faithfully the scenery of the camps; to display prominent incidents of military life, as well as to perpetuate the portraits of those distinguished officers, English and French, who have taken part in the ever memorable Siege of Sebastopol.”
Though the purpose of Fenton’s images was to realistically exhibit the Crimean War to the British public, Victorian standards discouraged Fenton from photographing the ghastly ravages of war.
Another restriction was the extended exposure times of the wet collodion process, which made photographing active combat impossible. Thus, Fenton relied upon posed images of soldiers and views of a battle’s destructive aftermath to convey the atmosphere of war.
Taking 36 cases of photography equipment, Fenton used a large van as a home base. Fenton equipped the pantechnicon with a cooking area, a living/sleeping area, and a dark room. Despite its utility, the van’s cumbersome size and light color made it an easy target for the Russians. Consequently, the van came under fire several times.
Painted on the van, in large black letters, were the words “photographic van.” As pictures were rare at the time, people inevitably flocked to the van requesting photographs to send home.
In addition to dealing with warfare, crowds, and the technical parameters of collodion photography, the intense heat and dusty terrain further complicated snapping photographs in the Crimea.
Fenton managed to avoid the many dangers of being on location in the Crimea, but by June 1855, Fenton’s luck ran out, and he contracted cholera. He started his journey home and had recovered by the time he reached England. There, he presented his photographs in private audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and was even allowed to lie on the couch due to his delicate condition.
Despite the countless challenges, Fenton managed to produce the first photographic documentation of war in his more than 350 images of the Crimea.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.