Predictably, it all started with a picture. David Douglas Duncan, one of LIFE’s most preeminent photographers, was in Tokyo, and his friend, Jun Miki, an equally formidable Japanese photographer, were friends. The time was post-war Japan, and Jun wanted to make Duncan’s picture. Duncan was skeptical, as the light of the day had faded. Miki persisted, and the next day, he brought Duncan a print. It was so sharp, even though shot in tough lighting conditions, Duncan immediately asked to be introduced to the people who were making this little-known lens–Nikkor.
In a very real way, this casual, almost accidental transaction between these two photographers helped give rise to what is now Nikon, currently celebrating its 100th anniversary. Duncan headed to cover the Korean War for LIFE, armed with Nikkor lenses. Back in NY, at the Time-Life lab, they were stunned by the quality of Duncan’s negs, and given the competitive nature of photographers, numerous LIFE staffers began clamoring for Nikkor glass. The rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing Duncan, just a bit, for a long time. I photographed him with Richard Nixon on the streets of Manhattan many years ago. They had been wartime buds, and Duncan gifted Nixon his most recent book on Picasso out there on Park Ave. He called out to Nixon, “Does anybody here remember Bougainville?” They had been stationed there, in the Philippines, during the war. Nixon turned and was presented with the book.
The picture ran page one, and in a day or so, I got a call from Duncan. Could he have a print? I was stammering on the phone, and of course made him an 11×14. The man is a hero to me, and I grew up, photographically, looking at his work. And he was on the phone? With this punk kid who had just learned which end of the camera to look through?
Fast forward 35 years. I go to the south of France, assigned by Nikon to do portraits and video interviews with Duncan, and his amazing wife, Sheila. I shot the stills and Drew Gurian did the video work.
The history this man has seen! From WWII, when he served as a marine, to Korea, to Vietnam, to the Middle East, and along the way becoming a friend and confidante of Picasso….nothing short of an astonishing life. He is very matter of fact about it. “I know how to work a camera,” he has said.
He indeed does know how to work a camera. His work will be celebrated in Tokyo, at an exhibition at the Nikon Museum. It was my honor to assist art director Gen Umei in curating the show, and writing some small essays about Duncan, and the influence he has had in the world of photojournalism. He is 101 now, and most likely will not make the trip from Castellaras to Tokyo, but he will be there very much in spirit, to celebrate the momentous occasion of Nikon’s 100th Anniversary.
The life of a photographer is quite circular, I find. From the streets of NYC, and a shared legacy as LIFE staff photographers, back in the day, to the south of France, and now onto Tokyo. He still had that 11×14 print I made for him long ago, and asked me to sign it for him. As he noted in my copy of his book, This Is War……
And the best lesson of all….he’s still shooting.