The Digital Journalist
The Big DDD
A Brief Appreciation
May 2004

by David Friend

He retains his Hollywood good looks, his tan, his marquee name. He possesses an air both cosmopolitan and crafty, relentless energy, a crown graced with a signet snowdrift of white. He is an unapologetic swaggerer, a true romantic, a raconteur, an insufferable self-aggrandizer. He is the incomparable David Douglas Duncan -- DDD to friend and foe alike -- renown for his noble studies of men at war and his portraits of his neighbor Pablo Picasso (who convinced him almost a half century ago to move to the south of France, where the photographer still resides).

David Douglas Duncan, born in 1916 and still charging like a doughboy, is a publishing Rumplestiltskin, cranking out rafts of books culled from his more recent work and from the deep-veined gold of his archive (held in the photography collection of the distinguished Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin). In recent years he has produced books across the photographic spectrum. Books about sunflowers, about Thor (his German shepherd), about a kidnapped Norwich terrier named Yo-Yo, about a short lunch-time encounter with photographic-master Henri Cartier-Bresson. (Cartier-Bresson's nutshell review of the book--which I whole-heartedly endorse--as told to Alan Riding of The New York Times: "It's a bad book. Absolutely uninteresting, mediocre, a series of snapshots. It's just what comes out of a camera when a camera works.") Duncan has also generated a modest bookshelf-worth of volumes on the art, the man, the legacy of Picasso. And his latest picture-memoir, Photo Nomad, clocks in at an eye-popping 464 pages.

Yet history will tend to favor not Duncan the artiste or Duncan the marketeer or Duncan the dilettante, but Duncan the Laureate of the Leatherneck. As a Marine, he covered Pacific battles (earning a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross), took aerial photos during bomb runs, and wrangled a spot aboard the U.S.S. Missouri to photograph Japan's surrender--in color, no less. On assignment for Life, he became the Korean War's most fabled photo-chronicler, parachuting in with troops behind enemy lines to spend Christmas with the troops. During Vietnam, he saw heavy action, created strong images and essays, and once told me, during a brief interview for Vanity Fair: "In my day, friendly troops were usually beside you or behind you. And I would go alone. I assessed my own risks. It's a different ballgame now. Today, these guys travel in coveys. They have to. [But in] the group, you draw fire. I would never get in that situation."

David Douglas Duncan and his wife Sheila

Video frame by Dirck Halstead
Over the years, I have had my furious, white-heat feuds with David Douglas Duncan, exchanged contentious letters and phone calls, shared toasts at Perpignan, along with words of apology and detente and genuine respect. But when all is said and done, I hold DDD in highest esteem, despite our differences over the years. And I believe that he will be forever remembered in heaven, or wherever-the-hell-else mortals are remembered, for two main reasons.

First, I do not believe that there is another man, dead or alive, who has made more memorable pictures of war in all three of these major conflicts: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In this regard, Duncan is without peer. Second, having been close to friends of his who have witnessed his generosity and companionship during cases of serious illness, I have rarely encountered a man more self-sacrificing and loyal to his oldest and dearest friends in times of deepest need.

© David Friend

David Friend is Vanity Fair's editor of creative development.