Obituary: Celebrated Combat Photographer David Douglas Duncan, 102

June 8, 2018

© David Douglas Duncan/David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection, Courtesy Harry Ransom Center

Con Thien, 1967. David Douglas Duncan captioned the photo: “One man was black—one was white; the endless nights and days, the rain-flooded trench, constant enemy shelling, cigarettes, and the grim life which they shared were the same.”


David Douglas Duncan, one of the most celebrated combat photographers of the 20th century, died yesterday in France, according to The New York Times. Duncan was 102.

Duncan began his career as a Marine photographer during World War II, but was best known for his unsentimental photographs of the Korea War and Vietnam War. His often brooding images of exhausted, emotionally drained foot soldiers captured the physical and psychological strain of war.

David Douglas Duncan

Photograph by Sheila Duncan. David Douglas Duncan looking through camera fitted with prismatic lens. Courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

“My objective always is to stay as close as possible and shoot the pictures as if through the eyes of the infantryman, the Marine or the pilot,” he told an interviewer in 1951, according to the New York Times report

Duncan joined LIFE magazine after World War II, covering conflicts around the world. After chronicling the Korean War, he continued to travel the world shooting photo essays in cities from Paris to Moscow to Tokyo. He spent 17 years chronicling the life and work of Pablo Picasso, from 1956 when he paid the artist an unannounced visit until Picasso’s death in 1973. Duncan was also an adventurer who scaled mountains, went diving and fishing, and photographed from the air and underwater.

He published 25 books during his career, including eight books about Picasso, and This Is War!, a collection of his Korean War images that is considered one of the best books about war photography.

Korean War, 1950. From Duncan’s book This Is War! © David Douglas Duncan/David Douglas Duncan Papers and Photography Collection, Courtesy Harry Ransom Center

Duncan also covered the Vietnam War for LIFE and ABC News, though he took a more partisan position than he did during World War II or the Korean War. In 1953, before the U.S. was involved in Vietnam, he described the fighting in Indochina as “a hopeless quagmire” in a cable to LIFE publisher Henry Luce. In 1968 he denounced the U.S. involvement in Vietnam in a book he titled “I Protest.”

Duncan was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1916. In college, he studied archaeology, zoology and Spanish. Afterwards, he combined his interests in fishing, diving and photography, pursuing a freelance career as a photographer of aquatic life. He published in National Geographic and other magazines. Immediately after World War II, he went to Palestine for LIFE magazine to cover fighting between Arabs and Jews before the founding of Israel in 1948. In 1968, he covered the political conventions of both U.S. parties, and captured Richard Nixon writing his acceptance speech.

Duncan donated his archive to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in 1996.

Duncan is survived by his wife, Sheila Macauley.
                                                                    —David Walker

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