Former Madisonian Chip Duncan releases new photography book

Book features a decade of international work
Former Madisonian Chip Duncan releases new photography book
Photos courtesy of Chip Duncan
This photo of a school girl in Ghana by Chip Duncan is included in his new book "Inspiring Change: The Photographic Journey of Chip Duncan."

Henry Longhurst, best known as the first British voice on American golf telecasts, once said he enjoyed reading biographies because they allowed him to experience someone else’s life without the trouble of living it.

That’s a bit like how I feel whenever I catch up with Chip Duncan, an old Madison friend who now lives in Milwaukee but for years has worn out his passport in distant lands from Peru to Afghanistan.

I caught up with Duncan last week, after receiving an email in which he described his new book, “Inspiring Change: The Photographic Journey of Chip Duncan.”

“Still photos from the past decade of international work in crisis zones, humanitarian hot spots and favorite destinations around the world,” is how Duncan characterizes the coffee table-style book.

“Still photographer” is a preoccupation — I wouldn’t exactly call it a job description — that came relatively late to Duncan. He arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from Iowa in the 1970s to learn how to write fiction. He did, but it took a while. Just last year a New York publisher brought out Duncan’s first collection of short stories. By then he’d already made numerous acclaimed documentary films, under the banner of his company, Duncan Entertainment Group.

It’s always been hard to pin a job description on Chip Duncan. Storyteller probably comes closest.

Longtime Madisonians may remember Duncan as a member of a popular late-1970s band called Broken Bow. He also used to play guitar for change while standing in front of Rennebohm’s at the corner of State and Lake Streets. That experience informs the first story in Duncan’s 2017 collection, “Half a Reason to Die.”

He’s currently finishing a book of three novellas that will be published next year. The story collection is dedicated to Ron Wallace, the recently retired professor widely regarded as the father of creative writing on the Madison campus.

“I learned more about writing from Ron than anyone I’ve ever known,” Duncan says. “At the same time, if you were to ask Ron, I was about the last person he would have ever expected to publish anything.” Duncan recalls that Wallace regarded him as “earnest.”

He was also realistic enough to know fiction wasn’t going to pay the bills, certainly not right away. Duncan added Comm Arts to his English major, and got a job at NBC-15.

“My first big assignment,” he says, “was painting the studio floor and fixing the weather door in the newsroom.”

When he left, a decade later, Duncan had learned to shoot video and was producing the news.

He had formed a documentary production company by then, eventually relocating to downtown Milwaukee. The films — his subjects included Ronald Reagan, C. S. Lewis, climate change, Herbert Hoover, the Patriot Act and a history of prayer in America — played on networks from PBS to HBO, and frequently garnered awards.

Last October, Duncan premiered “The First Patient” at the Milwaukee Film Festival. It’s a documentary about first-year medical students at the Mayo Clinic taking a course on dissecting a body. Duncan calls it “a labor of love that took me years to get into production.” It will be available to a wide audience on what Duncan calls “a major platform” in the spring.

Along with filmmaking, Duncan — in the wake of 9/11 — began volunteering his time to help document the efforts of the humanitarian groups Save the Children and Relief International. Those trips led to his still photography.

“In early ’04,” he says, “I went to Afghanistan for the first time with Save the Children. I was mostly known for shooting motion. But I had a still camera with me. Halfway through that trip, I picked it up and started using it more and more.”

“Transferring the skill set,” he found, was not difficult. “Also, I started to flip the camera vertically, something you can’t do with motion. After 30 years of shooting with this horizontal world view, everything shifted.”

The result was a successful 2004 photography book, “Enough to Go Around: Searching for Hope in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Darfur.”

“Inspiring Change,” the new book, grew out of a four-month exhibit at the Charles Allis Art Museum in Milwaukee that concluded in October. Duncan’s photographs — from Ghana, Ethiopia, Sudan and numerous other countries — emphasize the beauty and joy in the human experience that can be found everywhere. Also included in the exhibit were photographs by acclaimed African photographer Mohamed “Mo” Amin.

Next up for Duncan: a documentary series on the creation and design of a legendary — nearly mythical — 1947 Italian sports car. Seven were produced. Four remain. One is in Wisconsin.

And the back story? “The most amazing I’ve ever come across,” Chip Duncan says.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.