David Douglas Duncan (born January 23, 1916) is an American photojournalist and among the most influential photographers of the 20th century. He is best known for his dramatic combat photographs.
Duncan was born in Kansas City, Missouri, where his childhood was marked with interest in the outdoors, which helped him obtain the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts at a relatively young age. A lantern-slide presentation by big-game hunter and physician Richard L. Sutton, Sr., M.D. at Duncan’s elementary school in Kansas City inspired an early interest in photography and world travel. Duncan briefly attended the University of Arizona, where he studied archaeology. While in Tucson, he inadvertently photographed John Dillinger trying to get into a hotel. Duncan eventually continued his education at the University of Miami, where he graduated in 1938, having studied zoology and Spanish. It was in Miami that his interest in photojournalism began in earnest. He worked as picture editor and photographer of the university paper.
In 1934, Duncan received his first camera, a 39-cent Bakelite Univex Model A, for his eighteenth birthday from his sister Jean. In 1937, Duncan entered his photograph of a Mexican fisherman, casting his nets, into the Third Annual Newspaper National Snapshot Awards, where it was awarded Second Place in its class. Encouraged by his success, Duncan purchased a new camera with his prize money and returned to Mexico, where he began developing picture stories he could sell to the rotogravure sections of various U.S. Sunday newspapers. Between 1939 and 1943, Duncan documented a variety of subjects, including turtle fishermen in the Caribbean, the West Indies, northern South America for Pan American Airways, the coasts of Peru and Chile, and Mexico and Central America for Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA). His photo-stories appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, the Kansas City Star, the Miami Daily News, and National Geographic. In 1942, Duncan was drafted for World War II; on February 17, 1943, he was made Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps Reserve.
After college, Duncan began to free-lance, selling his work to journals such as The Kansas City Star, Life and the National Geographic Magazine. After Pearl Harbor Duncan joined the Marine Corps, earned an officer’s commission, and became a combat photographer.
Between 1943 and 1946, Duncan served as a combat photographer for the Marines, traveling throughout the Solomon Islands and the Western Pacific. He captured images of servicemen and women, various airfields, and the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. When Duncan was honorably discharged from the Marines on February 1, 1946, he was a First Lieutenant and had earned a Purple Heart, a Legion of Merit, six battle stars, three air medals, and two flying crosses.
After brief postings in California and Hawaii, he was sent to the South Pacific on assignment when the United States entered World War II. Though combat photographers are often close to the action, they rarely fight. However, in a brief engagement at Bougainville Island, Duncan found himself fighting against the Japanese. Duncan also covered the battle of Okinawa. Duncan would be on board the USS Missouri during the Japanese surrender.
A month after his military discharge, Duncan was hired by Wilson Hicks as a staff photographer for Life magazine. Three days later, on March 30, 1946, he was on a plane headed for his first Life assignment: Tehran, Iran, threatened by Russian tanks. As a Life correspondent to the Middle East, Duncan was based out of Cairo, Istanbul, and Rome. In Tehran he met Leila Hanki, the daughter of a Lebanese mother and Turkish father. They were married on September 20, 1947, and eventually settled in Rome.
Perhaps his most famous photographs were taken during the Korean War. He compiled many of his photos into a book called “This Is War!” (1951), with the proceeds going to widows and children of Marines who had been killed in the conflict. Duncan is considered to be the most prominent combat photographer of the Korean War. In the Vietnam War, Duncan would eventually compile two additional books “Protest” (1968) and “War Without Heroes” (1970). Here, Duncan stepped out of his role as a neutral photographer and challenged how the US government was handling the war.
Aside from his combat photographs, Duncan is also known for his photographs of Pablo Picasso to whom he had been introduced by fellow photographer Robert Capa. Eventually, he was to publish seven books of photographs of Picasso. Duncan became a close friend of Picasso and was the only person allowed to photograph many of Picasso’s private paintings.
In 1966 he published “Yankee Nomad“, a visual autobiography that collected representative photographs from throughout his career. In 2003 this was revised and published under the title of “Photo Nomad“.
By the early 1970s, David was all but retired from commercial photographic assignments, leaving him more time to focus on his book projects. Throughout the following three-and-a-half decades, he published sixteen books, including a second photo-autobiography, “Photo Nomad” (2003), five books dedicated to the life and memory of Picasso, a dog trilogy about his pets, a summation of his coverage of the Muslim world while working for Life, and a series of books introducing the works of other artists.
He traveled extensively in the Middle East, having been stationed there for 10 years as a Life photographer after World War Two. He later published “The World of Allah” in 1982.
Duncan resides in the south of France with his second wife Sheila, and continues to develop book projects.