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Photographer Richard Duncan Focuses on Cooperstown, New York

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by Eric J. Hurwitz

At an age when most working people approach retirement, Richard S. Duncan is watching his professional life take on the greatest meaning.

Richard Duncan, Photographer, Cooperstown NYDuncan, 73, is best known in the Cooperstown, N.Y., area as a talented local photographer with displays at Cooperstown's world-class Fenimore Art Museum and Farmers' Museum, as well as contributing to three-well received local books on Cooperstown. Published by The Farmers' Museum, Otsego County Its Towns and Treasures beautifully captures the old-fashioned, pure and scenic communities in Otsego County, NY. Cooperstown, in its seventh expanded and revised edition, features 167 remarkably-detailed Duncan photographs capturing the spirit of this storied American village. His photographs also appeared in the fabulous 1995 Farmers' Museum-published Otsego Lake, Past and Present

After years of, at times, hard city living, Duncan now enjoys the "country life" by bringing his considerable photographic skills to a Village that has embraced him as a photographer, and more importantly, a person. Several hundred people attended the Nov. 25, 2006, Farmers' Museum Cooperstown book-signing ceremony, with many recognizing his superb photography skills.

"He has given us a contemporary photographer's view of the village and lakes," said Paul D'Ambrosio, president and CEO of  Fenimore Art Museum. "No contemporary photographer had ever explored Cooperstown and Otsego Lake in the manner that Richard did. The Cooperstown book was never really a coffee table kind of book, but Richard transformed it into that with his

"We feel so privileged to work with him," said Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of The Farmers' Museum. "He's such a warm and caring person. We're all very happy to give him these wonderful venues."

Life wasn't always this kind to Richard Duncan, however. For more than 30 years, Duncan fit the "starving artist mode," working incompatible jobs and, many times, facing overwhelming financial struggles.

"This is the first time in my life I don't have to worry about not having food on the table or film in the camera," said Duncan. "Things have really started to come together. Before I got the call (to do this project), I was ready to wash dishes at a local college."

"I'm surprised I'm still alive," added Duncan, describing his previous life. "When I got to San Francisco, it was a real struggle. There were times I lived on the streets of Boston. It was so hard to focus. It's very different now."

Duncan grew up in what he calls a "difficult childhood situation," primarily in Sherburne, N.Y.  After high school, he attended the Manlius Military (prep) School, in Manlius, N.Y., and one year at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design in Providence, R.I., in 1963 before being "asked to leave." Sensing greater art opportunities on the mellower west coast, Duncan headed to San Francisco, Cal., with $600.00 in his pocket to attend the Art Institute, where, amongst myriad experiences, he studied drawing and painting "under the wing" of world-renowned artist, Jacques Fabert. During this time, Duncan also worked as a "hippie postman" to pay the bills.

With gypsy blood in his system, Duncan moved back to the east coast a few years later, this time in the Boston, Mass., area where he attended the Museum of Fine Arts (MOFA) in Boston, Mass., as a student.

At that time, Duncan studied painting at the MOFA, but soon became interested in color photography. Duncan eventually taught himself to work with color photography, being the only person in the building who knew how to use the darkroom for this medium. He would soon teach photography for a few years at the MOFA, but then moved on.

"I wasn't very good at marketing myself," said Duncan, of his short-lived jobs. "I was a little too creative at that time to fit in. I had a variety of other jobs while doing photography on the side."

Duncan experienced many times of frustration during this period, but had a savior in the form of Aikido, an Eastern arts martial discipline, potentiating self-defense technique, spiritual enlightenment, physical health and peace of mind. This discipline eventually transformed into following Taoism, a martial arts and health maintenance regiment "to increase a connection to nature and the flow of life." It gave Duncan "motivation" while he tried to find himself.

After the museum, Duncan worked odd jobs, matting and framing pictures before finding his longest career job of 20 years as a janitor at the Christian Science Reading Room in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass.

With no retirement offered by the Christian Science Reading Room, Duncan arrived at a crossroads, but there was remaining light at the end of the tunnel. A friend invited Duncan to a "lake party" in Cooperstown. where he said "everyone was so nice." Arriving back in the city after this glorious visit, Duncan's landlord evicted Duncan from his Tufts University-area apartment in Somerville, Mass., in favor of his grandson. That's when Duncan's said "enough is enough."

"I said 'nuts to this' and with $3,000 in savings, a bike and a camera, I moved to the country, Cooperstown," said Duncan. "I grew up in the country and the city was starting to frighten me. In the city, I became tired of people looking for handouts. It was getting so expensive. In Cooperstown, there were big, old trees, water and places you could walk."

Staying with a friend in 1998 until becoming better situated, Duncan eventually approached the Fenimore Art Museum staff with his portfolio. Impressed, they encouraged him to "keep at it." He also had a show at the Cooperstown Art Association, which "went well." The Smithy Pioneer Gallery also featured his work. Still, Duncan labored in jobs as a muffin-maker at The Inn at Cooperstown and then as a lifeguard supervisor during the summer at Fairy Spring Park in Cooperstown. He lived in a cabin there, too busy to focus on photography, but with a vision of creating a book of Otsego Lake photographs.

Fortunately, a "lifeguard" of an entirely different kind had big plans for Duncan and his "visions."

Jane Forbes Clark had seen, admired and purchased Duncan's work in the 2000-2001 timeframe. Clark contracted Duncan to a one-year project at The Farmers' Museum which prominently featured his photographs to hundreds of thousands of visitors, as well as signing him to work on the book projects. His work would eventually also be featured at the Fenimore Art Museum in the magnificently-detailed 2005 display "Mysteries of the Lake: Otsego Lake...Past and Present." The show resulted from the thousands of photographs Duncan took of Otsego Lake from 2003-2004, from land to kayak.

"Richard's extraordinary talent captures the beauty and spirit of the village and lake," said Clark. "A very good photographer knows how to capture a scene. An extraordinary photographer captures that scene with spirit. Richard can always make you sense the spirit of the scene, which is extraordinary."

Duncan's contributions to the Cooperstown book not only documented the Village of Cooperstown in the best visual sense, but he also experienced a peak in his career at an age when people usually look back in time at their own professional highlights.

"This (attention) has created a whole new world for him," said D'Ambrosio. "He loved the village when he arrived here. The displays and books have opened up opportunities for him to share these treasures."

Clark commented, "The books were everything Richard, Paul (D'Ambrosio) and I hoped it would be. We shared the same concept and philosophy behind
the work."

Today, Duncan lives with his girlfriend, Pam (whom he met in Cooperstown), in a home in the woods near the town of Milford (which borders Cooperstown). Duncan lives where the big sky allows him to see beyond just buildings and other distractions that impeded his previous life, thus, creating a clearer vision for his own personal dreams.

The newfound opportunities in Cooperstown allowed him , several years ago,to also update his technology by "pooling money together with Pam" to buy a Mac computer (with Photoshop software) as well as a printer and scanner. Duncan added, however, he "still believes in film." Duncan, in fact, took most of his Cooperstown photos using film using a medium format Hasselblad camera, although he now owns a digital camera, as well.

"I have to stay up to date," said Duncan, adding with a slight laugh, "I didn't even know how to use a computer a few years ago."

After the Otsego County book, Duncan says he is not sure what the future holds. Right now, however, he is grateful for the opportunities to help contribute to "preserving Americana" by documenting Cooperstown through the lens. He feels great about finally getting to use his skills more consistently and that people have taken notice.

"In some ways, it's strange," said Duncan, of his newfound success. "I'm not totally ego less, but it's not inflating me. I'm just pleased I'm utilizing my talent. I feel like I'm at an oasis."

Resources from this article:

Otsego County: Its Towns and Treasures

Otsego County New York Book
Otsego County, a one thousand square mile area in central New York populated by some 60,000 people still retains much of what James Fenimore Cooper called in 1823, the “romantic and picturesque character which it so eminently possesses.” Well preserved homes, from every style of the 19th century, still dot the landscape and line the streets of villages and hamlets. As in his previous books on the Village of Cooperstown and on Otsego Lake, Richard Duncan has combined his own beautiful photography of the present with the historical images from the village and town historians of Otsego County and the collections of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, to capture the delicate balance between the past and present of the 24 towns in the county.

To place an order by phone, please call the Museum Shop at (607) 547-1493, or toll-free at (888) 547-1450. You can also visit the The Farmers' Museum Shop for more information. 

Cooperstown book, photos by Richard Duncan

The latest 183-page edition of this classic local book offers a comprehensive view of the village's beloved history with updated and expanded text, 255 illustrations, including 167 photographs in full-color by Richard S. Duncan, black and white photography drawn from the Association's Smith and Telfer Collection, and a foreword by Jane Forbes Clark.

To place an order by phone, please call the Museum Shop at (607) 547-1493, or toll-free at (888) 547-1450. You can also visit the Farmers' Museum Shop for more information. 

Otsego Lake: Past and Present

Cooperstown book, photos by Richard Duncan

Otsego Lake ­ Past and Present is available in our museum gift shops and by mail through The Farmers' Museum gift shop 800 Lake Rd., Cooperstown, NY 13326. This volume is the first comprehensive photographic documentation of Otsego Lake. It features the extraordinary color photographs of Richard S. Duncan, Commissioned by The Farmers' Museum in 2003 and 2004, and draws upon the historical photographic collections of The New York State Historical Association

To place an order by phone, please call the Museum Shop at (607) 547-1493, or toll-free at (888) 547-1450. You can also visit the Farmers' Museum Shop for more information. 

A sample of Richard Duncan's Cooperstown photographs

Hills in Cooperstown Richard S. Duncan Photography. All work is copyright protected.


Golf-Farm-Otsego Lake Richard S. Duncan Photography. All work is copyright protected.


Main Street Scene, Cooperstown Richard S. Duncan Photography. All work is copyright protected.


Thayer Farm Richard S. Duncan Photography. All work is copyright protected.


Otsego Lake Richard S. Duncan Photography. All work is copyright protected.


Cafe Nicoletta's Richard S. Duncan Photography. All work is copyright protected.


Pool scene, The Otesaga Resort Hotel Richard S. Duncan Photography. All work is copyright protected.


The Otesaga Resort Hotel at night Richard S. Duncan Photography. All work is copyright protected.


Fog, Otsego Lake Richard S. Duncan Photography. All work is copyright protected.

Want to find out more about Richard Duncan? Visit his Web Site

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