In the third installment of our tribute to David Douglas Duncan in the month of his 100th birthday, Mary Alice Harper, Head of Visual Materials Cataloging, writes about Duncan’s close relationship with Pablo Picasso.
In the fall of 1998, I first met David Douglas Duncan when I was introduced as the archivist who would be caring for his collection. 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, from college classmates to his fellow Marines, Mexican fishermen to Saudi royalty, Afghani shepherds to American presidential candidates, Hollywood stars to his lovable hounds, and perhaps the most fascinating of all, Pablo Picasso.
Duncan’s relationship with Picasso began on February 8, 1956. While on his way to Spain, Duncan detoured through Cannes with the sole purpose of trying to meet Picasso. Years before, Duncan’s friend and fellow photojournalist Robert Capa promised to introduce them, but in 1954 Capa tragically died after stepping on a landmine in Indochina. And so it was that Duncan arrived at the gates of Villa La Californie, alone, but bearing a ring he’d had made for the occasion. Duncan was met at the door by Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s companion who later became his wife. Three days later, in a letter to a friend, Duncan recalled the moment:
She came downstairs, grabbed me by the hand and up we went… into the bathroom, and there he was—cheerily lathering himself, in the tub! It was perfect! Pablo Picasso without much question, the greatest living artist of our century, black eyes dancing, warm and safe and wringing wet, in his bathtub. In went the ring, soap and all. She went on scrubbing his back… which she’d been doing when I arrived. Picasso and I talked in Spanish, she and I in English; I must have seemed naked, too, without my camera so he told me to get it, that the pictures, if I wanted them, might be interesting, since this was one place where no one had ever nailed him. (David Douglas Duncan to Sheila Macauley, February 11, 1956.)
Two years later, reflecting on that moment, Duncan wrote, “[s]omething extremely precious and rare was born in those few minutes of our first meeting. We three became friends, for life. It was that simple.” (The Private World of Pablo Picasso, p. 8). But Duncan became more than just a friend; he became family. And unlike other photographers, including Capa, Lee Miller, and Edward Quinn, Duncan had exclusive, around-the-clock access to Picasso and his world. Between 1956 and 1973, Duncan took more than 11,000 photographs of the artist and his family. Shooting with custom-made Leica M3Ds, Duncan was all but invisible thanks to the unobtrusive click of their shutters. Film shot while Picasso worked on his aquatint series Pepe Illo captures this dynamic perfectly. In this frame, where Picasso’s face is reflected in the copper plate, we see the artist entirely absorbed in his work, seemingly oblivious to the photographer practically breathing down his neck.
The trust Picasso put in Duncan has now been transferred to the Ransom Center. It has been a true privilege and honor to work with Duncan, ensure access to his collection, and preserve his legacy.
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