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Q&A | Behind the Camera with John Duncan

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

Photographer John Duncan in the 1970s.

John Duncan has worked many jobs and lived in many different places, but through it all, he has always had a passion for photography. Now retired, he has been looking back over his photography and reminiscing about his long, almost-unbelievable life. With his compassionate and captivating style, John has put together a new book of photography Take It Easy: Portland in the 1970s. The book, featuring photos of downtown Portland from 1972 to 1979, offers a window into a time of great flux for the city. Get to know John a little better with this Q&A, and enjoy a peek at a few of the photos from the book.


If you could bring back one business that was in Portland in the 1970s, which would it be?

Jim’s Bar and Grill. Jim’s was just a cool little place to hang, always good music. One would walk by the window, seeing the band from behind, and the sounds would draw you in!

Name your top ten favorite ‘70s bands:

The Doors, Grateful Dead, Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, The Who, Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin.

What do you see as the biggest change in Portland over the decades?

Its diversity. I mean, Portland was always diverse, in an Anglo sort of way—Irish, Italian, Polish, etc., but mostly white. After Vietnam, the city began its transition into the vibrant, multicultural place it is today. Refugees from Asia, Africa, and other parts of our planet found a new home here. Now, just a few generations later, the city is reborn. Although it is not without its issues, such as housing, affordability, homelessness, and immense, “condo-ization!”

What elements do you think make up a good photo?

Observation, timing, composition, and the ability to capture human behavior.

If you could time travel back to the exact moment one of these photos was taken, which one would you choose?

A girl named Michelle in the 1970s.

This is my favorite photo from the book. Back then I didn't know this young freckle-faced girl, but I've since come into contact with her, Michelle, all grown up. I greatly cherish that connection.

You’ve worn many hats over the years. What was your favorite job and why? What about your least favorite?

My favorite would be tractor trailer driving. I love the open road, being my own boss, seeing new places, and meeting new people. My least favorite would be short order line cooking. Way too frantic and it requires way too much multitasking.

What are some favorite memories that were jogged by the Take It Easy publishing process?

Betsy Whitman in the 1970s.

The biggest thing has been reconnecting with many of the people who were in my social circles during those years, hearing their stories, gaining new perspectives on the trajectory our lives took, and insight into where we are now. As my old friend Betsy Whitman said, “we need to make the best of it, as we slowly age out of here." I'd never heard aging expressed quite that way before, it sounds so pleasant and peaceful. Of course, when in one's twenties, at least for me and many others during those years, life seemed a bit more carefree, even though there were serious social and political forces at work all around us. Through the journey of creating this book, I've regained a renewed fondness for that period of my life—the friends, the drugs, the music, the ebb and flow of relationships one can never go back to. But ohhh, those special moments that linger in our psyche throughout our brief time on this third rock from the sun.

What would your advice be to a young, budding street photographer?

When I journey out to the streets, camera in hand, I see the world around me as a garden of humanity, and I, a visual farmer, harvesting images. Sometimes the harvest is good, and sometimes it sucks! With that in mind, my advice to up-and-coming street photographers is to relax and enjoy the beauty and intricacies of your surroundings and the people within it. Be observant of human behavior and the interactions of those around you. Sometimes I just sit in one place, photographing things happening in the frame before me. If one waits long enough and is patient, something of interest inevitably occurs. Personally I prefer wide angle, the SLR equivalent of a 35mm lens or wider, as one is forced to be closer to people, thus creating an intimacy which I feel is missing from telephoto work—although that has its place, too. The challenge for me is to connect, become one with my surroundings, and take a pic. Be respectful of people's space as in these days of cell phones and social media, many are protective of their images being put out in the public sphere for all to see.

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