Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Update on Photog Who Took Credit for Famous Images

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Update on Photog Who Took Credit for Famous Images

Article excerpt

There is a fascinating update to the controversy surrounding well-known photographer Joe O'Donnell, which E&P covered closely one year ago.

When O'Donnell died last August at the age of 85, detailed obituaries appeared in The Washington Post (via the Associated Press), The New York Times (by staffer Douglas Martin), and other major papers, along with a lengthy account in his hometown Tennessean in Nashville. The Times noted that he "captured lastingly famous scenes as a longtime White House photographer." I had interviewed O'Donnell briefly for a book about 15 years ago, and E&P, after he passed away, published my column focusing on his photographs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly after the atomic bombings in 1945.

But quickly, some photographers, and a major article at the Web site, disputed some of the facts in the obits and declared that O'Donnell claimed some well known images captured by other photographers as his own.

The New York Times soon carried a correction.

When O'Donnell died, the Times cited well-known images he took credit for, including President Truman and General MacArthur at Wake Island and Vice President Nixon in his "kitchen debate" with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. But it was the following that eventually sparked the blowback: "And the O'Donnell photograph of John F. Kennedy Jr., saluting his father's coffin became the most reproduced version of that memorable scene."

Why was O'Donnell not closely IDed with many of his most widely-published photos? The Times explained: "Because he was on the government payroll, Mr. O'Donnell got no personal credit for those photos."

The day after the obit appeared, according to The Digital Journalist, Gary Haynes, a retired UPI photographer notified the Times that he was "99% certain" that the John-John salute photo claimed by O'Donnell was actually taken by UPI's Stan Stearns.

Stearns told Fulton that he was sure that O'Donnell had robbed his credit but then went further: "This guy was never, ever a White House photographer," although he did not cite evidence for this. Joe Chapman, a retired UPI editor and manager, said he did an "overlay" which suggested that the photo had to be Stearns' and not one taken by someone else standing in the same location. Haynes and Chapman also wrote letters to me.

But that wasn't the end of it. Photographers on the UPI Download list looked at other photos O'Donnell had sold on his Web site, and did more overlays that found that some of O'Donnell's photos were "identical" to ones taken by Mark Shaw, Elliott Erwitt and others. An O'Donnell portrait of Truman seemed the same as one credited to Frank Gatteri at the Truman Library site.

The Times correction observed: "Two pictures on Aug. 14 with an obituary about the news photographer Joe O'Donnell carried erroneous credits, and the obituary also included one of the incorrect credits. The photograph of a saluting John F. Kennedy Jr. during the funeral for his father in 1963 was taken by Stan Stearns for United Press International, not by Mr. O'Donnell. The photographer who took the second picture, showing Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill during a wartime meeting in Tehran in 1943, is not known, although Mr. O'Donnell claimed credit for it and the Kennedy picture. Mr. O'Donnell is not known to have been in Tehran at the time. A Nashville gallery that handled Mr. …

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