David Douglas Duncan, 97, is one of the world’s most influential photographers and photojournalists, having reported for Life magazine for a decade and then working freelance, covering World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and many of the 20th century’s historic moments. He also published eight books of photographs of Pablo Picasso, whom he befriended in 1956. Duncan has lived in the same house in the south of France for 50 years with his wife, Sheila, and he is a longtime fan of Formula One racing. He has recently completed a book about the Monaco Grand Prix, based on photographs of a television broadcast of the race that he took while recovering from a broken hip. In the first of a series of articles about famous and unusual Formula One fans, Duncan spoke with Brad Spurgeon of the International Herald Tribune.
Q. When did you become interested Formula One?
A. It was back in the late ’50s. I had come back from Russia in my Mercedes — I had a 300SL Mercedes — and there was a fabulous guy who was the head of press at Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart and he introduced me to Ami Guichard. Guichard had a book in Lausanne called Automobile Year. That was the definitive book at that time devoted to racing, as far as I know. And that’s how I met my friend Bernard Cahier (a Formula One photographer), and it was through him.
Q. What interests you in the sport?
A. First, the beauty of it. There is inherent danger, of course. But the beauty of these lethal machines, side by side. And then the astonishing ability of the pilots to go through the mist and the dust at Abu Dhabi or the rain at Silverstone. They are risking their lives at tremendous speed.
Q. Is there a link between war and racing?
A. Very much so. It’s like between war and bullfighting. Dominguín, this rather slender little guy, a great toreador, could fell a 2,000-pound bull by just the twist of his sword. That’s technique, because the bull outweighed him almost 1,500 to 1. So imagine. And so I don’t understand how a guy like Schumacher, who is now 44 and has gone from manual shifting of a car, throttle control of the car, to electronic control of the car, and it’s all in the steering wheel now, and that’s amazing. And to watch going in Monte Carlo from 60 kilometers to 200 in seconds, all controlled by the steering wheel and that mechanism — I just don’t understand how a person can think at that speed. It is not amateur, this is life and death. If they make a mistake they will kill the guys next to themselves, they will kill themselves. It is just extraordinary. But that’s happening in front of your eye!
But like war, one mistake and you’ve had it. Time and again.War is different, though. War is national involvement, involuntary. These racing drivers are voluntary — they are doing it for the fun of it! As Schumacher explained, we are doing it for the fun of it — “a bit crazy, but we are a bit crazy.” The idea of racing at that speed and in principle trusting the other drivers to know what the hell they are doing — that they are driving with the same care as you are but that they are within inches of each other. It’s just amazing, at that speed. With all the uncertainties. And then in the rain. Heaven. Can you imagine?
Q. And Formula One’s place in history?
A. It is a binding force now. It is international. It is wonderful. Because now the other countries are coming in, the economy in India and Brazil has picked up. The major economies are not American anymore. They are Asian and South American. So as I say, Formula One is a unifying force. For sure. And thanks to television it is understood and viewed, and the danger, the thrill, the beauty.
Q. How did you meet Picasso, and why do you think you became friends?
A. I went to Picasso knowing nothing. I hadn’t the faintest idea of his type of painting. I was trained as an archeologist at the University of Arizona and then in marine zoology. And nothing to do with art except my personal interest in principally medieval and 14th-century art. Picasso was just a name. I was in Istanbul in 1947 working with the Turkish Army on the Russian frontier, and Bob Capa, the famous war photographer, was there, and he said: “You live in Italy and sometimes go through France for stories. Go say hello to my friend Pablo Picasso.” They were very good friends, respected each other, because Capa had covered the Spanish Civil War, which was very close to Picasso.
Nine years later, I was going through from my home in Rome to photograph the Berbers in Morocco; I was doing a story on the Muslim world at that time. So I said, “Gee, Capa once said to go and say hello to Picasso.” So I called and I started in Spanish, I speak Spanish modestly. A girl answered the telephone and said, “Speak in English, I’m Jacqueline” — Jacqueline Roque at that time, who became Mrs. Jacqueline Picasso. “You’re a friend of Capa? Come now.”
So she told me how to get there and I went up. She was dressed all in black — scarf, sweater, pants — tiny, about five feet tall. Into the house, upstairs, nothing but crates, paintings, sculptures, drawings all over the place. It was a Victorian house. Upstairs into a sitting room with a sketch of herself. And the bathroom. Here is Picasso sitting in the bathtub. I had brought him a ring from Afghanistan, and I said, “Here is a carnelian, carved with an image.” And I thought it looked like a Picasso, in my ignorance. I gave it to him and then asked his permission to go back to my car to get a camera. I got the camera and photographed him, and that was the first. But interestingly enough he looked at this ring, which had the image of a rooster carved at the time of Christ, and said, “I wonder what he used?” Picasso wondered what that artist, 2,000 years before, used to carve the stone.
Q. You see a war analogy with Formula One, but covering it is nothing compared to sitting a foxhole in Korea….
A. That’s something I didn’t understand ever. I was in World War II as a marine, but by the time Vietnam came around I was in my early fifties, and living the same life as an early marine. I could never understand ever, and I still don’t understand, going into a dangerous area, to have a young guy, 18 years old, hardly old enough to shave, killed right beside me. The innocence of the guy, and myself 30 years older, more, and with all my failings, and all my mistakes in life, my lack of, let’s call it ‘protective Godly qualities,’ I’d have got hit. I have been hit very casually over the years, but I have been very lucky. And this young kid killed right beside me, I don’t get it. And I see these guys praying all the time; I’ve never prayed in my life. Ever. I always depend on…. It’s true, I believe in luck, but more than beyond luck I was born into a family where faith was strong, but not church faith. Something else. Faith, faith. Maybe it wasn’t misplaced; I am 97 now, so I’m a very lucky guy. I have taken some hits here and there, but I’ve been most damaged carrying my little terrier to bed and I broke my hip turning off the lamp. I’ve been nicked a few times, but he put me out of business. So life is a very strange adventure.
Q. You also photographed Gandhi.
A. People ask me, “Have you ever been in India?” I say, yes, the first day, the 15th of August, 1947, when Lord Mountbatten was the last viceroy of India. Gandhi was a strange guy. There was this simplistic manner; but nobody knows what it cost to provide the simple life of Mohandas Gandhi. Nobody. He traveled on a train by himself.
Q. What kept bringing you back to war?
A. That was my profession: The news of the world. After I left the Marines in ’46, I wanted to stay in the Marines, I was very happy, I loved that life. I thought, maybe the Foreign Legion here in France. It was my world, I liked that kind of men there; in that world, especially the Marine Corps, you go into combat, similar training, similar responsibilities, you knew that the guy next to you would get you out if you got hit. They would make an effort to drag you out whether you were dead or alive. That wouldn’t be true in many businesses in the world today. That type of comradeship was terrific.
Q. You were in Indochina before Vietnam?
A. I started in Indochina in ’51. It was the end of the world that had been run by colonial powers. So I wanted to do a story for Life that was based on the end of the colonial world, and Indochina, Hong Kong, and then Iran, and Egypt, many places. Then in ’53 I got a story in Life, ran for 10 or 12 pages: ‘Indochina All But Lost.’ Lost, in ’53. The fury I faced from the American government! I was persona non grata in France for one year.
And tragically, back to Bob Capa … I had been working in Germany on the Iron Curtain. And I got a message from New York: “David, your ban has been lifted, you are no longer persona non grata in Indochina. Would you like to go back?” Instantly I wanted to go back to see what had happened since I was last there. This was ’54. Six hours later, a message came back in on the wire: “Bob Capa is in Tokyo. He has always said he will never go back to war again, but he will go back one more time. So David, don’t go back.” Capa went back to Indochina on my story, and in May 1954 he stepped on a land mine and it killed him. He was with the Legion at that time. I operated by myself, so there is no way to assume that I would have been killed on the same job. We worked differently. But the point is Capa was killed on my job. I was in Egypt when I heard the news. Capa was killed on my job. It was horrible. Life is a mystery.