Documenting the Homeless with Dignity

B. N. Duncan
B. N. Duncan, co-creator of the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar, displays the 1994 edition, Thursday, Jan. 13, 1994 on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, Calif. Duncan supplied his photographs for the calendar which depict life on the streets of Berkeley, including homeless people and the 1993 nudist campaigns. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot

At a sidewalk memorial on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, B.N. Duncan was remembered by the street people whose lives he documented with dignity.

"I just want to say, I love you Duncan," said one man. "Thank you for putting me in the street calendar."

Duncan was just a short step from destitution himself, but for 15 years before his death, he took photographs and put out a calendar featuring not pinups or cars or art, but the homeless and the strange -not people to shun, he insisted, but people worth learning about, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone. More than a month after Duncan's death, he's still being mourned by the homeless of Berkeley, Calif.

"We're not trying to make people sob with pity," Duncan said in 1990. "We're trying to show that these people can be interesting and enjoyable to know about."

Back in the 1990's, there was Julia Vinograd, Miss April.

"I don't imagine you thought of yourself as a calendar girl," Blackstone said.

"Why not, buddy?" Vinograd said.

Mark Hawthorne, on the streets more than 30 years, was once a reporter for The New York Times.

"I was normal for 35 years and then I got bored," Hawthorne said.

For Hawthorne and others who live outdoors with all their possessions, being in the calendar was a point of pride.

"Street people don't' even look at mirrors, so to see a photograph of themselves is pretty empowering," Hawthorne said.

Duncan insisted on looking at the lost souls of Telegraph Avenue as an anthropologist might - with endless interest and compassion.

"He's kind of mixed up in the head, but he's got vital spirit," Duncan said about one homeless man.

About a cat lady: "She is a really gifted person. She identifies a lot with animals."

Printer and publisher Mark Weiman says Duncan was a major presence in Berkeley.

"He took them seriously. These were his people," Weiman said. "I think Duncan was a genius."

So does Duncan's sister, Elaine, who had doubts about her brother's interest in life on the streets.

"There were times when I thought, 'Oh my God, why is he doing this?'" Elaine Duncan said.

Duncan was 65 when he died on June 27. He left a storage locker full of work, some of which is bound for the library at Ohio State University.

"He was a voice where there was no voice," Elaine Duncan said. "And this meant a great deal to him."

"Everything he did was weird," said Ace Backwords, Duncan's collaborator. "Everything he did was odd. Everything he did was totally unique."

He made his subjects unique, too.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.