Sunday, September 13, 2015

Adrian C. Duff, the Camera Kid

Because he was primarily a still photographer we only mentioned him briefly in our book on the American film cameramen of World War I. Also, as a result of his untimely death, Adrian C. Duff's name and reputation soon vanished into oblivion after the Great War had ended. This weblog is another attempt to set the record straight and give a long forgotten American war photographer the credits he deserves.


Adrian C. Duff (1918), when he was an officer in the U.S. Signal Corps


Born in New York City in 1893, Duff made national headlines in February 1912 when he got in a plane with aviator Frank T. Coffyn and for the first time in history photographed New York City from above. Because of his youth - he was only 21 at the time - he was nicknamed "The Camera Kid". These remarkable pictures were taken above Manhattan with a small hand camera and Duff had considerable difficulty in steadying it because of the turbulence. Duff was on the staff of the American Press Association when he made these photographs. In a special press release Duff explained how he managed to make these historical pictures.

The American Press Association sent Duff to Vera Cruz, Mexico, in April 1914 and he covered the landing of the U.S. Marines. Shortly afterwards, when war broke out in Europe, he crossed the Atlantic and made his way into Belgium. He was in Antwerp when the Germans bombed the city with their Zeppelins, witnessed the destruction of Termonde and covered the siege of Antwerp in October 1914 with his camera. Because of his experience as a war photographer his employer sent him into Mexico again to cover General Pershing's 1916 expedition against Pancho Villa.




When America entered the First World War, Duff was assigned to the 26th U.S. Division and sent to Europe. He was commissioned as a Sergeant and later promoted to Lieutenant in the Photo Unit that accompanied the 35th Division. A number of pictures in the Signal Corps collection of the National Archives in Washington, DC, are credited to Duff. Here is a special selection, all taken in the final months of the war when Duff was stationed at the western front:



Wounded soldier, receiving first aid. September 26, 1918


Elderly French couple, greeting American soldiers. November 6, 1918


Medical corps, carrying wounded soldier. July 22, 1918


Duff was, by all accounts, a fearless photographer and always ready to get into the thick of the fight to make a good picture. Together with one of the Signal Corps operators, he crawled out into No Man's Land just before an attack was scheduled to take place, and, though exposed to both German and American fire, set up his camera in order that the people at home, seated comfortably in motion-picture theatres, might actually see the boys going "over the top." On another occasion during the Battle of Chateau-Thiery, Duff became separated from the troops to which he was attached and found himself under the fire of a German machine- gun, but in spite of the hail of bullets he stuck to his work, made his pictures, and returned to the American lines herding in front of him a group of Germans whom he had captured at the point of an empty revolver. He twice received a citation for bravery as result of this.

Adrian C. Duff died unexpectedly on March 7, 1920, at the age of 28 in a car crash in Brooklyn, New York City. At the time of his sudden death he was working as a motion picture cameraman for Gaumont. Apart from his war pictures there is probably also film shot by Duff during World War I, but no research has been done on this so far.

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