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From the Shelf Self-Portrait: USA

By Charles M. Hagen

DAVID DOUGLAS DUNCAN has done it again. Given an incredibly good opportunity to cover photographically an inherently exciting series of events, he has somehow managed to make the least of it.

Last spring, Rueven Frank of NBC News had what might have been the best idea of the entire 1968 political campaigns-why not use still photographs to supplement the regular TV coverage of the conventions? The marriage of the two media might produce some exciting results in that aspect of the conventions most important to nearly all Americans, the network TV coverage.

NBC stumbled badly in its first step towards of feeting this good idea, though, when it chose Duncan to be the photographer. Duncan is the Harold Robbins of American photography-not very good, but very successful. His coverage of our two Asian wars. Korea and Vietnam, have made him the best-known photographer in America. His photos have always confirmed things that we already knew, or thought we knew. His war photos: our gallant boys, bravely fighting the faceless hordes: why, sure, war is hell, and our troops get exhausted, and dirty, and ... boy! it's rough; but still they fight valiantly onward. Above all, Duncan's photos are predictable. We need only visualize our shallowest thoughts about any news event that Duncan covers to know what his photos will look like.

So the choice of the photographer killed any chance the project had of fulfilling the promise of the idea. One wishes Robert Frank could have been persuaded to do the assignment, or Bruce Davidson, or Ken Heyman, or Constantine Manos. Perhaps next time-Duncan's coverage was well received by many critics, and NBC might feel it worth doing again. If they do, though. Duncan will probably be rehired: go with a winner. Perhaps aesthetic judgment is too much to ask of the corporate mentality.

Anyway, this book (yes, this is a book review) is a collection of the photos Duncan took for NBC during the Republican and Democratic conventions. A large number of the photos are Bachrach-on-an-off-day portraits of the delegates, candidates, and hangers-on that are tenuously related to anything only by the banalities Duncan wrote to accompany his photos. These portraits are really little more than testimonials to the sharpness of a new lens, a prototype 400 mm. f/6.3 telephoto made by Ernst Leitz for the Mexico City Olympics. The lens really is fantastic; things are pretty bad, though, when the most praiseworthy thing about a series of photos is their sharpness.

DUNCAN GOT ALMOST as much material assistance from NBC. Nikon, and Leitz as Thien gets every month from Nixon. No corporation was able to give Duncan the one thing he needed more than any other-a good eye.

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