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John Duncan's Portland

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

By Dean L. Lunt

I have worked as a journalist, writer, and editor for more than three decades. On any given day hundreds, perhaps thousands, of images and stories and proposals flicker across my screen or slide across my desk. A lot of noise. A lot of sameness. Last year, a black-and-white image more than forty years old broke through that noise. The photograph, which appeared in a newspaper article, shows two elderly women in hats and long coats walking toward each other, stone-faced and purposeful, on the streets of Portland, Maine, in the 1970s. The backdrop is the now-closed State Drug at State and High streets. The image jumped up and grabbed at me. It was different. It was fascinating.

Photographer John Duncan

The photographer was John Duncan and when he snapped that picture, he was a twenty-something free spirit with no formal photographic training, but nursing an obsession with the art form. He lived in Portland and paid the bills by picking up a few odd jobs, but mostly he drove a taxi and washed dishes at local restaurants.

After I tracked him down, he began sending me links to more and more of his images from the seventies. What he showcased—in sometimes chaotic bursts—over the following weeks grew into a remarkable body of work, an intoxicating mix of street photography, candid photos, and personal images. His photography captured a time and place with a vibe I had never seen about a Maine city or town. In New York? Perhaps. In Maine? No.

Most of the pictures—and he took thousands—Duncan had forgotten about in the haze of time and travel and work. But nearly fifty years later and retired, he was joyously rediscovering his passion and his past by digitally scanning the old film negatives. He shared a handful of the images on social media to great applause and triggered a kind of communal explosion of memories from people who inhabited that space and time with him so long ago.

Overall, the sheer volume of photographs, the compressed timeline (1972-1979), and the unusually concentrated location—essentially Congress Street in the midst of its epic fall from grace—combine to create an eye-opening collection of images that paint a rare close-up of a living, breathing city buffeted by change and uncertainty. Here in black-and-white was joy and pain and melancholy as it played out in real time on the streets of a city that, in many ways, is unrecognizable from the wealthier, trendier, hipster-infused tourist town that so many love today. In the 1970s, GQ magazine would not have tabbed the downtown Portland seen through Duncan’s lens as one of the coolest cities in America. But in many ways it seems more real—almost like Kodachrome vs. CGI.

Shadows and Light

The look and feel of Duncan’s photos give off whiffs of old Rolling Stone magazine images and Alfred Wertheimer’s legendary candids of a young Elvis. Closer to home, they echo the work of the brilliant Kosti Ruohomaa, only Duncan replaces images of the farms, work boats, and rural kitchens of 1950s Maine with the grittier city sidewalks and cheap apartments on a half-mile strip of 1970s Congress Street and its adjacent neighborhoods. Duncan’s photos are less shadowed and dramatically lit, and may be less “professional” than Ruohomaa, but like Ruohomaa’s Maine work, Duncan’s are not epic. They are not of famous people, places, events, or disasters; rather they record and elevate a simple, daily life that, even if unknowingly to the subjects at the time, is threatened by unrelenting and irreversible change.

John Duncan is still photographing Portland. As he did then, when Duncan shoots his subjects, he opens a window to the world he sees in front of him. Shadows and light. Slight blurs in motion. Cluttered backgrounds. He uses no tricks, just a simple camera and a good eye to deliver images that are often intimate, inviting, and presented in a way that draws you in and you linger. For a moment, you may forget you are looking at a photo, or a piece of history. Instead, you become part of the photo. It feels as if you are there, in the frame. Duncan’s friends are your friends, hanging out in your apartment. You see his friends or subjects and wonder, “What are they doing?” You notice the surroundings and see the bottle of Old Milwaukee on the side table, or the pack of cigarettes, a boy’s sideways glance, a hairbrush, or a billboard high above Congress Street.

A deeper appreciation of what Duncan has accomplished— external from the images themselves—can be gained by understanding two key elements: the iconic nature of this particular time and place, and Duncan himself. The captions and essays he has written in this book build critical context and form a narrative arc that tells a larger story of downtown Portland.

Duncan was a full-blooded child of the seventies. He grew up living a fairly routine life in Falmouth, graduated from high school in 1969, immediately moved to Portland, attended Woodstock that summer, dropped acid in the woods of Max Yasgur’s farm, and emerged as an unmoored soul fueled by curiosity and a thirst for experiences. He might drop everything in a finger-snap for a cross-country hitchhiking adventure with a friend—or even a stranger. He lived in the moment. If he ran out of money on the road, he’d sell his motorcycle or his camera so he could eat, or he’d pick up a job wherever necessary, which might mean shoveling mud at a Wyoming oil rig, pumping gas at a truck stop, or cooking at a school with ties to Scientology. When he stashed away enough cash or the urge struck him, he moved on. What he never did, and never has done, is work as a paid photographer.

An Insatiable Curiosity

While unmoored in an existential sense, Duncan remained anchored to Portland, more specifically the evolving downtown. His young-adult life daily took him out to the streets of a city facing its own existential crisis. The city was trying to find a future even as its past was crumbling like so much falling brick, whether from neglect or a wrecking ball. He drove a cab, washed dishes, collected trash, lived in cheap apartments, drank, listened to music, and took drugs. His jobs, his lifestyle, and his insatiable curiosity—the single greatest trait for any journalist or photographer—gave him the time, access, and drive to snap thousands of pictures whenever he had a camera. His natural empathy infused those photos with life, while his innate ability to frame and compose shots on the fly gave them his signature quality.

Duncan’s personality and style certainly lent themselves to capturing candid moments. I work with top photographers who sometimes spend endless time lighting a shot, manipulating the background, or waiting for the perfect moment. Duncan often took shots without breaking stride. He could whip out his camera and shoot as quickly as a Wild West gunfighter. Unlike a documentary photographer who might airdrop onto the streets for a shoot in an unknown city, Duncan lived in Portland and worked along its streets every day, so he captured moments as they unfolded; thus his memories and narration play a crucial role in elevating this book and its images into a work of surprising depth.

Meanwhile, the time and location of Duncan’s photography provides a familiar and compelling backstory that, when not front and center, is always bubbling just below the surface. If he had rediscovered forgotten photos of Portland Head Light or the Portland Sailors and Soldiers Monument, it wouldn’t be such a cause for celebration. Instead, he teleports the viewer directly onto downtown streets of Portland. The subjects and the city seem to coexist in a time of unease and uncertainty that seeps into each frame. Sure, from our perspective now, we know how the story ends, but that knowledge only adds poignancy and melancholy to Duncan’s photographs. No one in them knew what was coming next.

Empty Storefronts and Ghosts

So, it is critical to remember that in Duncan’s world, the future remains unknown. The Congress Street retail district is wheezing and barely on life support. Yes, his camera shows us that there are still wonderful department stores and retail shops, but the upper floors are deteriorating, the store fronts are tired, and new investment is lacking. The district is fraying at the edges, chewed away by drugs, pornography, and prostitution. Most ominous are the clouds gathering from the west, where the shiny new Maine Mall (and all that free parking!) has risen at the crossroads of the region’s modern Interstate. It is sucking the very life breath from the city’s de facto Main Street. At the same time, the bones of the city are under assault from the forces of urban renewal as the powers that be thrash about searching for a way forward: to undo the economic damage inflicted by the ascendant suburbs, sweeping societal shifts, and a transformative economy. Ironically, at this point it is the neglected and derelict waterfront that is slowly rising from the rubble, only intensifying the struggles of the downtown district. At this moment, as Duncan sits at his taxi stand across from Paul’s Food Center, he can’t know that in less than twenty years, Congress Street will be dead, a depressing collection of empty storefronts and ghosts.

As it is, the streetscapes on which Duncan lives and drives are remarkably different from just a decade earlier. Entire blocks and neighborhoods have been razed and historic streets rerouted or eliminated. The businesses in the historic Golden Triangle off Monument Square have been demolished and forgotten. When Duncan drives past the Triangle area, it is a depressing, chained-off parking lot for 160 cars. Many other homes and buildings throughout the city built tight to narrow, crooked streets are giving way to straighter, wider boulevards and to larger, less personal corporate towers and structures. At least that is the plan.

If we leap even further ahead, to another two decades beyond the death of Congress and the closing of Porteous in the 1990s, we also know that Big Money will roll onto the peninsula bringing shinier buildings, expensive hotels, pricey restaurants, and an Arts District. We know that tourists will flood the streets, some spending upwards of $1,000 a night to stay in a boutique hotel or shelling out a million dollars for a waterfront condo. In Duncan’s Portland, young adults are paying maybe $100 a month to live in Spartan apartments

off Brackett Street, visiting dive bars like Eddie’s, and dancing on the upper floors of essentially empty buildings with jugs of cheap wine and a few smiles. What has been gained and what has been lost is a debate that will rage forever across the city. I suspect Duncan’s book will only add fuel to that fire, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

When I step back and look at Duncan’s seventies photos and text as a larger narrative, I am reminded of the movie “American Graffiti.” George Lucas’ coming-of-age classic offers a similarly narrow focus—the last night of summer in 1962 for a group of local teenagers. The next day some will head to college, some to adulthood, and they are uneasily living in that seminal moment just before life changes forever. Since it is the fall of 1962, we know an era in American society and pop culture is ending. In 1963, a new era—far different from the 1950s—was truly taking hold. The Beatles and the Vietnam War were waiting in the wings to take center stage. We know all this as we watch the movie. It adds depth and melancholy to the fun and nostalgia playing out over a backbeat of Wolfman Jack, Buddy Holly, and the Beach Boys.

And so it is here in Duncan’s remarkable collection of images, at once loose and laser-focused. They provide a similar look at an uncertain moment in time—a fulcrum moment filled with fun, hope, struggle, and melancholy. When it ends, there is no going back. These images will spur people to create their own personal soundtrack and ignite debates and trigger a flood of memories and nostalgia that go far beyond what we actually see in print. Many of the young adults of the seventies are now in their seventies, typically an age of reflection. They will remember a time when, warts and all, the city of Portland was their city—a city that to a young adult seemed a little exotic, a little dangerous, and a whole lot of fun. In short, a city just like the seventies.

Dean L. Lunt, the founder and editor-in-chief of Islandport Press, penned the Foreword to Take it Easy: Portland in the 1970s—a remarkable collection of over 130 long-forgotten, black-and-white images captured by dishwasher, cab driver, and budding street photographer John Duncan. In images he shot while hanging with friends, walking the streets, or driving his taxi, Duncan emotionally and evocatively captured the innocence, mood, fun, spirit, struggle, and melancholy of a city and its people during an iconic era.

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