“You take pictures, I paint …”

Born on January 23, 1916 in Kansas City, David Douglas Duncan is one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. His career in photography started unwittingly when he went to shoot some pictures of a fire at the old Congress Hotel in Tucson on his new 39-cent Bakelite Univex camera . One of the subjects that drew his attention was an excitable man who insisted on trying to enter the burning hotel to retrieve his suitcase. Duncan snapped a picture of the gent and three days later learned it was a picture he took of John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1 – whose story was made into a film starring Johnny Depp! While the photograph did not survive, the experience had a indelible impression on young Duncan.

Armed with a bachelors degree in Zoology and Spanish he set sail on an uncharted course to create a new profession – photo journalism. When the Second World War broke Duncan worked as a combat photographer. Not only did he “get the story” he brought his cameras close enough to tell the world it was the men and women who fought the war, not the war machinery.

Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, assisted by Foreign Ministry representative Toshikazu Kase, signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese Government, on board the USS Missouri, September 2nd, 1945. U.S. Army Lieutenant General Richard K. Sutherland, watches from the opposite side of the table.

When Duncan landed a job at Life magazine and was asked, “Can you be in Persia this weekend?” his dream of dreams had come true. His assignments included capturing the fading glory of the British Raj in India to the numerous conflicts in Turkey, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

U.S. Marine inside the cone of fire at Con Thien, September/October 1967.

When the subject of a photograph is War or anguish, it is easy to forget how much artistry goes into shooting the picture – the perfect light, the perfect angle, the perfect composition and the fact that both the photographer and the subject are in imminent danger of losing their lives. You need both artistic sensibility and clearheadedness. Duncan has both in spadefuls and is a master of his visual media.

In 1956, taking up on a suggestion by a close friend, Robert Capa, Duncan knocked on the door of Pablo Picasso‘s villa in the South of France. His gumption paid off when the two men almost instantly hit it off and moments later, Duncan was taking the first of several portraits of  the artist.

Born on October 25, 1881 in the city of Málaga in the Andalusian region of Spain, Pablo Picasso’s family was middle class and his ancestors were minor aristocrats. At age 10, he was a deft little artist who was being tutored by his father, José Ruiz Blasco. Young Pablo soon surpassed his father’s abilities and when the family moved from A Coruña to Barcelona, Pablo joined the local art academy for what was hoped to be a career as an academic painter. Two years later he won an honourable mention in the Madrid Fine Arts Exhibition for a painting called Ciencia y Caridad or Science and Charity in which his father modeled for the doctor.

His next step was an obvious move to the Spanish capital of Madrid but finding the instructions given at the Royal Academy of San Fernando stupid, he spent more and more time observing life around him. In the bustling cafes, streets, brothels and most importantly in the Prado, where the works of great painters before him captured his imagination.

After recovering from an illness in the Catalan village of Horta de Ebro, Picasso returned to Barcelona and decided to break from his past – his art school training and indeed his surname, Ruiz, adopting instead his mother’s surname, Picasso. His friends were now Catalan artists and writers whose eyes were turned towards Paris.

Lovers in the street by Pablo Picasso. 1900

Eager to experience Paris first hand and conquer the city with his work – well, at least a corner of Montmatre – he set off in the company of his studio-mate Carles Casagemas. At Paris Picasso discovered that colour was not the “the black of the shawls of Spanish women, or the ochres and browns of the Spanish landscape”.  It was vibrant and brilliant and Picasso took to recording what he saw in charcoal, pastels, watercolours, and oils.

After two months Picasso returned to Barcelona but his friend Casagemas, despondent over a failed love affair, returned to Paris to shoot his lover and then turned the gun on himself.

The death of his loyal friend and a sense of guilt for having abandoned him led Picasso into the years known as his Blue Period. Between 1900 and mid-1904 Picasso moved back and forth between Barcelona and Paris. The emotional experience of Casagemas’s death and others that he gained from visits to women’s prisons or seeing the destitute beggars on the streets of Barcelona, all gave him compelling subject matter during this period.

The Soup by Pablo Picasso. 1902

'Factory at Horta de Ebro' by Picasso

Picasso was inspired by many great artists before him such as Cézanne and El Greco. However it was his work with Georges Braque that developed into what became known as Cubism, one of the most innovative and influential artistic styles of the 20th century. Early cubist paintings were misunderstood to be geometric art. It was not … it showed multiple views of an object on the same canvas almost as if the artists were trying to create a kaleidoscopic image.

Later canvases by Braque and Picasso took Cubism almost the realm of Abstract art. One such Cubist painting by Picasso is Landscape at Céret. In the words of Jan Avgikos, it was “painted with patches of muted earthy color, schematized stairways, and arched window configurations (that) exist as visual clues that must be pieced together. For this painting, as with all Cubist works, the total image must be thought as much as seen.”

Landscape at Céret (Paysage de Céret), Céret, summer 1911. Oil on canvas,

Dora Maar Au Chat by Picasso

Picasso did not stop at Cubism. His art continued to develop both stylistically and in genres encompassing sculpture, ceramics, prints and stage design.

So when this “disquieting” Spaniard with his “sombrepiercing” eyes met the American David Douglas Duncan they discovered they each had a singular passion for work, for life  that developed into an enduring friendship.

 They spoke in Spanish. “But”, says Duncan, “he would pretend not to understand what language I was talking. He would ask Jacqueline: ‘What language is he speaking?’ pointing his finger at me. ‘I think it’s Spanish,’ she would answer. ‘Yes, that’s what I thought …’ But actually we didn’t talk much, maybe 50 words in a whole day. My language was photography.”

Very clearly Duncan feels great admiration for the artist. “He was my teacher, my master […] I always called him maestro, never Pablo, not once. He called me Ismael. I never found out why …”

The friendship with Picasso had such a profound impact on Duncan that he continued to produce books about the artist years after his death. “I have covered many, many subjects as a photographer. This is the Best.”


2 responses to ““You take pictures, I paint …”

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