PORTLAND, Maine — When John Duncan, 69, starts spinning stories, there’s no telling where he’s headed. Duncan tends to ramble but it’s only natural. Having lived an extraordinary life of travel and adventure, he’s earned the right.
Many of Duncan’s best tales flow from the thousands of pictures he’s made throughout his nearly seven decades. He’s been all around the world, worked more jobs than he can accurately count, seen amazing sights — and has the photographs to prove it.
But as a photographer, Duncan is best known for the simple, black-and-white images he made at home, on the streets of Portland in the 1970s. In recent years, Duncan’s been combing through his archives, scanning old negatives and posting them online. The positive response has been intense as his pictures transport viewers back in time, to a city that no longer exists.
“People stop me on the streets and say, ‘Hey you’re the guy who posts all the old pictures of Portland, I love those,’” Duncan said.
He has posted hundreds of his photos in the “Portland Maine Encyclopedia of the 1960s, 70s, & 80s” Facebook group, garnering enthusiastic responses from its nearly 16,000 members.
“The extent of his documentation of life in 1970’s Portland is mind-boggling and we are the beneficiaries” said Bonnie Blythe, a group co-founder. “He is also beautifully skilled and so humble.”
Duncan’s 70s photos are not epic. They’re the opposite. Rather than depicting news events, protests or disasters, they illustrate simple, daily life. In his image collection, there’s long-haired young men playing guitar in the park, pals drinking beer in a now-retro apartment and mechanics working on once-ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetles.
Portland’s photographer John Duncan’s archive of photos depicting the city in the 1970s is deep, including these images. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Back then, Duncan shot almost anyone that got in front of his lens, including friends, strangers, random street scenes and even what he could see in his car’s rear view mirror.
One of Duncan’s best-loved photos is of two ladies, one dressed dark and the other light, walking on what looks like a collision course, down Congress Street in front of the long-gone State Drugstore. Since posting it to Facebook, the image has inspired dozens of comments and shares.
“I believe the beauty salon on the second floor was my grandmother’s,” wrote one commenter, which prompted many responses about whose relatives were customers at the salon.
It’s typical of Duncan’s online photos. They often prompt long strolls down memory lane, uniting the collective memory of Portland’s displaced diaspora.
“Love this, remember it well — and the corner it was on,” wrote another member of the Portland Encyclopedia group. “Oh, to have those good ol’ days back. Sigh.”
People recognizing themselves or relatives in his vintage pictures, too, often get in touch with Duncan, asking for prints. He’s happy to oblige.
“I posted pictures of a guy throwing pizza dough and someone wanted a print. They said it was their father and he’s 70, now,” Duncan said. “They gave me a bottle of whiskey for it. That was good.”
Another one of Duncan’s more well-known pictures is of a striking, freckle-faced girl selling lemonade in the West End. Since it hit Facebook, he’s been contacted by the now-grown woman and her children.
Duncan still has old treasures he’s yet to unearth. He estimates he’s only gone through about three-quarters of his negative archive.
“And everytime I go through them, I find something I missed before,” he said.
Duncan’s first camera was a gift from his father in middle school. Since then, he’s only rarely been without one.
“Scenery has never interested me,” he said. “It’s always been about people, humans.”
Portland photographer John Duncan shoots pictures while Bob Bergeron works on his mural at the new Amistad Mark Perry Center on Forest Avenue on Dec. 4, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Duncan’s biography reads like the plot of an unbelievable action-thriller film. It makes the popularity of his vintage, hometown photos more remarkable.
Growing up in Falmouth, Duncan set a state high school track record, running the mile. He then went to Woodstock in 1969 and hitchhiked to San Francisco and back. He spent nine months in the Air Force during the Vietnam War before talking his way out, convincing higher-ups he wasn’t cut out for military life, earning an honorable discharge in the process.
Duncan lived in Sweden for a decade and met his wife there. He’s had numerous careers, including oil rig roughneck, long-haul trucker, cabbie and photocopier repair man. He also sold cotton candy from a circus train and did nude art modeling in Maine, as well as Europe.
He’s never worked as a photographer, though. His output is all self-motivated.
Duncan’s retired now but still spending a lot of his time photographing Portland and its people. You’ll see him cruising around town on his bike, in a high-viz vest, camera slung around his neck, talking to everyone.
“What really feels satisfying to me is getting close and interacting with people, if I can,” he said.
In warmer months, he sits at sidewalk cafe tables with an antique, folding camera. When passersby ask about it, he demonstrates by taking their portrait — adding them to his photographic pantheon of local characters.
University of Southern Maine Professor Libby Bischof, who teaches a course on the history of photography, thinks Duncan’s pictures are important markers of time and culture. Bischof knows exactly why his photos are so popular online, too.
“I name that phenomenon nostalgia,” she said. “One of the appeals of photography is that it allows us to see what can no longer be seen. We see the people we once were and the places we can no longer go.”
Duncan’s photos are akin to hometown poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow piece, “My Lost Youth,” she said.
Its first stanza reads: “Often I think of the beautiful town that is seated by the sea; Often in thought go up and down the pleasant streets of that dear old town, and my youth comes back to me.”
Bischof thinks Duncan’s informal street photography and portraits of friends are particularly powerful because everything is in context. Most of his images are loosely framed, including detail-rich backgrounds to luxuriate over. You can’t get that from a more formal kind of picture taking where everything is set up perfectly, with nothing extraneous in the frame.
She also reckons Duncan’s pictures are a kind of memorial balm. Bischof hears a lot of bitterness from old-timers about how Portland has changed — how they no longer recognize it. But Duncan’s pictures somehow make them feel better.
“Getting old ain’t for the faint at heart but I’m really enjoying all the pictures — brings back some great memories,” one commenter wrote in a long Facebook thread reuniting old friends for the first time in years — while they compared the chronic illnesses they were fighting. “Please keep up the great work.”
Sometimes remembering what came before is an exercise in pain but not with Duncan’s pictures.
“The emotion is different,” Bischof said. “With his photos, people are less sad for what they’ve lost and more happy about what they had.”