A Photographers Life

1975 The 1970s Home Page

I am largely self-taught in Photography but can't quite claim to never have taken a class, because, while a senior at Valley High School in West Des Moines, I did take my one and only Photography class. It was an introductory class and I wasted my time taking it when I would have been better served taking something more substantial. I already knew most of what was being taught, though, like most high school students, I didn't know as much as I thought I did. I spent my time making a pinhole camera using a 126 film cartridge, helping people load their film reels, doing darkroom work and generally screwing off and demonstrating my superior knowledge. I must have been pretty insufferable. As part of the class, we were supposed to write the biography of a Famous Photographer. Everybody glommed onto Matthew Brady and Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Not me.

I had been reading a lot of World War II history at the time and also reading Modern Photography, Popular Photography, Camera 35 and other long-forgotten photo magazines. The early histories of Vietnam weren't out yet, but journalists were heroes in this immediate post-Watergate era and David Hume Kennerly was the official White House photographer with unparalleled access to the President. The Time/Life Photo series was pretty new and had gritty reproductions of famous photojournalists. I had been born in Canada. I decided I'd write the bio of a famous Canadian photojournalist.

His name was Douglas Dennis Davidson. He got his start as a photographer's assistant in Saskatchewan and became a photographer for the Saskatoon Journal. In the late 1930s he moved to the Toronto Globe and Mail and his career took off with the Second World War. He arrived in England during the Blitz, when he was injured by a falling brick wall photographing a German bombing raid. He went on to cover many major actions. He was briefly captured by the Germans in North Africa, but then escaped. He was wounded by grenade fragments in Sicily, had a camera shot off his chest at Anzio, landed D-Day morning with the Canadians at Normandy where, a week later, he was inadvertently bombed by our own side, and was finally put out of action when he was shot and seriously hurt at Iwo Jima. Until then, his injuries were generally not critical, his strong constitution allowed him to quickly heal and his determination to be at the front soon returned him to where the action was. Throughout the war he bravely put himself in harm's way and stayed primarily with the front-line troops, with whom he was very popular.

The war over, he endured a long and painful convalesence during which he met his wife, a nurse at the hospital in Vancouver. Once healed, he returned to Toronto and proceeded with an illustrious career. He was shot in Korea during the winter of 1952 and later contracted malaria in Central American while covering poverty and unrest in Nicaragua. Not even middle age and children kept him from covering conflicts; he was injured in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1968. His career finally came to a tragic end in 1974 when he was killed in a single-car auto accident in Nova Scotia while doing a photo essay on the disappearing fishing industry in the Maritime Provinces. He missed a turn on a foggy road, ran into the ditch and was killed. He was accident-prone to the end.

His was a moving story, with the rigors of the Depression, the early coverage of World War II and his continued brave work with front-line combat troops despite great personal danger and several wounds. His highly developed social conscience kept him working on stories when lesser men might have sat back to reflect on an illustrious career. It was all very moving.

It was also all a total fabrication.

My main cited source was a Toronto Globe and Mail commemorative edition which had supposedly been published when he died, a couple of months before. In those pre-Internet days, you couldn't just go on-line and check this out. My father travelled to Canada a lot on business, and I was still a Canadian citizen with less than eight years in the U.S., so this had the ring of credibility. The Globe and Mail was among the largest papers in Canada, so that also rang true, and I correctly assumed that the teacher had no convenient way of checking out the source. I may have cited a book or two as well, supposedly borrowed from Canadian friends, and therefore unavailable for me to bring in. All the dates and invasions, their order and importance, were of course true and accurate. The Nicaraguan poverty and Maritime Province fishing industry photo essays sounded like the kind of thing that a famous photojournalist might have the scope to do. The whole theme of his bio was to go cover some big event and then get captured, hurt or sick. The final accidental death fit into the hazardous and accident-prone life he'd always led, and gave a rationale for the commemorative edition which provided me such rich detail. Even his name was calculated to sound vaguely familiar: I don't actually remember what I called him, but it was three names, they all started with 'D' and you might confuse him with an actual photojournalist called David Douglas Duncan.

I got an A on the paper. Even then, I was a bit abashed. I had not previously, nor have I since, fabricated a report out of whole cloth. I was even more abashed when the teacher asked to keep the report as a reference, as this photographer seemed unjustly obscure in this country. I agreed, and he kept it, which is why I can't cite exactly the details of this guy's ficticious life, not even his name (the exact invasions and injuries I cite above probably aren't quite the same as I wrote in the paper either, but they're in the right spirit). I got an A in the class, graduated that May and went off to college and life, and never heard anything further about it.

Am I proud of this paper? Well, no, though I must admit some guilty satisfaction. I'd spent the last couple of impressionable years reading many of the World War II POW epics, The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story, Free as a Running Fox, etc., books where a subversive, cheerful knack for deception and defiance of authority were prized, and my report arose from that mindset. It was also a by-product of what in retrospect seems an particularly unchallenging curriculum, one that should have found a better way to occupy all this creativity. Well, now I've come clean. Just don't tell my kids!