David Douglas Duncan (1916-2018)

The Major American Photographer Kept Lifelong Ties to Kansas City

David Douglas Duncan, a major American photographer, died earlier this year after a long life filled with adventure, travel and an enduring love for his family, friends and hometown of Kansas City.

Duncan will be remembered for many distinguished bodies of work. His war photography broke norms with its presentation of soldiers as neither winners nor losers, rather as regular people to whom we could all relate. These arresting images from World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam became well-known as he freelanced and later worked for “Life” and other magazines. Beginning in 1956, his charming yet thoughtful portraits of Picasso introduced Duncan’s artistry to yet another population of admirers.

Duncan’s range of subjects and his willingness to go anywhere to find them were without limits; he photographed giant sea turtles in the Cayman Islands, the artistic treasures of the Kremlin and both the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

His passion for photography began at an early age, but Duncan did not own a camera until 1933, when he received one from his younger sister as he was leaving for college at the University of Arizona. It was a Bakelite camera which cost 39 cents. His first attempt at photo-journalism certainly proved the observation of his longtime friend Sally Ruddy: “David had a knack for being at the right place at the right time.”

In January 1934, news broke that the Congress Hotel in downtown Tucson was on fire, and he rushed to the disaster site with his camera. He happened upon a rather undistinguished-looking middle-aged man pleading to be allowed to reenter the hotel to retrieve his suitcase. Duncan shot some photos. The firemen decided to rescue the luggage, then realized that it not only belonged to John Dillinger but was filled with money from a recent bank heist. Dillinger and his gang were arrested at the hotel and Duncan turned his film over to the “Tucson Citizen.” Unfortunately, these historic photos were never printed, as they were lost by the newspaper.

Sally Kaney Tourtellot Ruddy met Duncan when she became his neighbor at the age of 6. Even with a 7-year age difference, they formed a friendship that endured for nearly 90 years. She was considered a part of the family by David, his parents and his four siblings. She spent more time at the Duncan home than her own, attracted by the enormous amount and variety of activity generated by five children. She could not help feeling that life as the only child in the Kaney household was rather drab in comparison to theirs. By the time she was in high school, she was modeling for Duncan; they would drive around Kansas City, searching for appropriate backdrops such as the Verona Columns. She met Duncan’s best friend, George Tourtellot, whom she would marry in 1942, and over the next seven decades she kept in regular contact with Duncan, whether he was traveling or at his home base in the south of France. In 1971, he visited her farm, where two of her children were rehearsing with the cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Duncan’s enthusiasm for what he saw resulted in a cover story for “Life” magazine.

Duncan, Picasso and the Nelson-Atkins

When Julián Zugazagoitia began his directorship of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2010, he wanted to find out what museum members and the public wanted to most see at the museum. The overwhelming consensus was Pablo Picasso. As Zugazagoitia studied the museum’s inventory, he was surprised to discover numerous works by David Douglas Duncan, never having realized that the photographer had Midwestern roots. Zugazagoitia could not understand why only his birth year was listed in his biography. After checking into it, he was startled to learn that Duncan was alive and well, living in the south of France, not far from where Picasso had resided toward the end of his life. He contacted Duncan and a correspondence began via letter and fax, gradually developing into a friendship and regular visits.

In 2013, Duncan gifted the museum with 161 images of Picasso he had reprinted in inkjet. The works were featured in the 2013-14 exhibit, “Celebrating Picasso: Through the Lens of David Douglas Duncan.” Duncan’s generosity did not end with his gift of photographs. In 2013, he donated 20,000 copies of his book “Photo Nomad” to be given away by the Nelson. Two years later, he asked the museum to disseminate 50,000 copies of another publication, “My 20th Century.” Zugazagoitia firmly believes that these gifts were instrumental in introducing many Kansas Citians to Duncan’s photography.

Duncan was encouraged to first visit Picasso by another photographer and friend, Robert Capa. “Born in Kansas City, Missouri, and knowing nothing about Picasso, I had the audacity to knock on his door, became his friend, and took thousands of photographs, of him, his studios, his life and his friends,” Duncan once related. After speaking on the phone, Picasso’s then companion, Jacqueline Roque, met him at the door. “Without a word she took me by the hand,” Duncan later recalled. “We went past a goat called Esmeralda on the stairs, through a sitting room with a couple of sketches on the wall, through a dark corridor and there was Picasso, just sitting there in a bathtub.” Duncan always called Picasso Maestro; the artist’s nickname for Duncan was Gypsy.

On one decades-ago visit to Kansas City, Duncan noticed a child playing with a rocket launcher, a new toy that every grade school boy coveted. The rocket broke into three pieces at it was propelled skyward by pressurized water, simultaneously and thoroughly soaking anyone in the near vicinity. He was entranced by its novelty and immediately asked where it had been purchased, determined to acquire one. Duncan then proclaimed that he couldn’t wait to give it to Picasso; he knew the artist would love it.

Molly Ott Ambler, a New York-based art advisor, characterized Duncan’s contribution to the massive Picasso archive in this way: “David Douglas Duncan is among the handful of people close enough to the most important artist of the 20th century to profoundly impact our understanding of his working practices. The intimacy that his images afford the viewer allows us an exceptional sense of Picasso: how he lived as a man and how he practiced his art.”

Duncan never quit working. Zugazagoitia remembers that during one of his last visits to the photographer in France, Duncan showed him images of Grand Prix races.

One photo in particular stood out, as it appeared that Duncan had been behind the wheel. When questioned, he confessed that he had shot the picture from his bed during a recent hospital stay while the race was being broadcast on television.

Ruddy, who is an artist, sculptor and puppet maker, shared a love of creativity with Duncan. She remembers some advice that he gave her: “Move in close. Then closer.”

Apt words from a man who embraced all the adventures that life had to offer.

About The Author: Nan Chisholm

Nan Chisholm

Nan Chisholm is an art consultant and appraiser of 19th- and 20th-century paintings. After a long association with Sotheby’s, she founded her own business in 2003.  She has appeared as a fine art appraiser on Antiques Roadshow since its inception in 1995.  Based in New York, she grew up in Kansas City and visits frequently.

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