What do Nikon cameras, Pablo Picasso and perfumes have in common? Even in these days of Instagram and social media, photos for me still conjure the great Nikon camera, brought to its commercial success by the LIFE combat photographer David Douglas Duncan. I originally came across his work at the University of Arizona in Tucson where he attended in the late 40s and I worked in the 90s. Tucson was where Duncan first found the thrill of photography, inadvertently having captured the mobster and bank robber, John Dillinger as he reentered the landmark hotel, Hotel Congress on fire – to retrieve his stolen bank money!
In the 50s, David stumbled across the Nikon lens called NIKKOR through his assistant, Miki Jun who was aiming the lens at him using a colleague, Murai Ryuichi’s camera. Initially, the experienced American photojournalist hardly paid attention, telling his assistant that there wasn’t enough daylight at the end of the day to take a portrait. But Miki took the picture anyway and developed it to show his boss the print the following day.
In a 2012 interview, Duncan speaks about how astonished he was at the quality of the photo, and how upon learning that the NIKKOR lens was manufactured at the Nippon Kogaku plant, he asked for a visit - a visit that would ultimately catapult Nikon to its future success. Duncan bought a trial lens and continued to use the NIKKOR 50mm F1.5 and 135mm F4 lenses to cover the Korean and Vietnam wars for LIFE magazine.
LIFE Magazine too noticed the excellent quality of the pictures Duncan took and Nikon soon became the go-to lens for professional photographers. Perhaps even more importantly was that behind the scenes, a mutual respect between Nikon and the combat journalists developed and flourished. Testament to this was the 24-hr lens cleaning service Nikon provided for all photojournalists staying at the Tokyo Press Office during the Korean and Vietnam wars, regardless of the brand of camera or lens they used.
Outside of combat journalism, Duncan also took photos of Pablo Picasso and his wife, Jacqueline Rocque. Introduced to the intimacy of Picasso’s life in the Alpes-Maritime department of the French Riviera, Duncan took up residence in the region and lived out his days in Grasse, France, in the land of perfumeries in which Patrick Süskind’s book, Perfume, was based.
Born in Kansas at the turn of the 20th century, David Douglas Duncan lived a full and documented life until 2018. He died aged 102, having made notable connections with Nikon, which he ultimately helped become a commercial product, but also having established deep ties with Pablo Picasso and the land of perfume, all though the eye of a lens.
Today, Saturday, the 21st of August is World Photo Day. Enjoy your photo day with the history of the great late photojournalist, David Douglas Duncan.