In the second installment of our tribute to David Douglas Duncan in the month of his 100th birthday, Michael Gilmore, Visual Materials Assistant, discusses a photograph of his father taken by Duncan during the Korean War.
I’ve known about David Douglas Duncan since I was five years old. He was the Marine who carried a camera instead of a rifle. This was difficult information to wrap my young head around. My father was a Drill Instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. I saw Marines with rifles and side arms all the time and yet, here is a Marine, a well-respected Marine, who carries a camera instead!
And we had a book at home to prove it, This Is War!, photographs taken during the Korean War. Most of the Parris Island cadre had been in the war, including my father. In fact, there were two shots of my father in This Is War! In the first shot, he is running across a rubble strewn street in Seoul. In the next shot, he has a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) set up on sand bags or bags of rice covered in dirt and is pointing out a potential target to two spotters, who should have been pointing out targets to him, but then again, he had 20/15 vision well into his 70s.
After my father retired from the Corps in the late 1960s, I was preparing for college and became interested for a time in modern art and of course had to pay attention to Picasso. I can’t remember the book I was reading, but I noticed from the photo credits that the photographer was David Douglas Duncan. This was difficult information to wrap my teenage head around. A Marine Corps combat photographer is friends with a revolutionary artist, good enough friends to take photos of the artist hamming it up in a bathtub? David Douglas Duncan is not a photographer you easily pigeon-hole.
When my father passed away and I was boxing up his library, I came across a hardback quarto edition of This Is War! I turned to the all-too-familiar pages. There he is, a left handed BAR man. Immediately to his left is the tall buddy known to rib my father for being short, “hey Jimmy, when you going to sue the state of Texas for building the sidewalks so close to your backside?” I also realized that when I was 20, wearing a helmet and fatigues, I was a dead-ringer for the BAR man in the photograph. I’m not sure I would have ever known this if David Douglas Duncan had not been following a particular Marine Corps weapons squad around in September 1950, as they cleared the streets of Seoul, Korea of enemy combatants.
In a delightful twist of fate, nearly 60 years after first coming across his photography, I man the desk in the David Douglas Duncan and Cain Foundation Photography and Art Viewing Room at the Harry Ransom Center.