UPDATED: Questions Raised About Claims By Photographer — His Son Responds — ‘NYT’ Corrects

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By: Greg Mitchell

When Joe O?Donnell died last month 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.? E&P published my Pressing Issues column focusing on his photographs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly after the atomic bombings in 1945.

Now, some photographers, and a major piece at the Web site www.DigitalJournalist.org, are disputing some of the facts in the obits and say that he claimed some well known images captured by other photographers as his own. That article carries the headline: ?The Bizarre Story of Joe O?Donnell.?

The New York Times carried a correction on Wednesday.

In a letter to E&P today (reprinted in full below), O?Donnell?s son accepts some of the criticisms but refutes suggestions that his father never served as White House photographer or shot the rare pictures in the two atomic cities. ?I just want to clarify my father was not leading the life of Walter Mitty,? Tyge O?Donnell, who lives in Las Vegas, writes.

I never met Joe O?Donnell but interviewed him more than a dozen years ago for a book on American responses to the atomic bombings. In the end, he was mentioned only in a footnote in that book.

When O?Donnell died last month, 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 connected to 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 Marianne Fulton?s article at The Digital Journailst on Sunday, 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.

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. Chapman dismissed O?Donnell?s claims as ?just hokum.?

He also said: ?We know he wasn?t a White House photographer.”

Fulton cites a source who worked at the White House under Truman and Kennedy, and his report that he had never heard of O?Donnell. But she did manage to find five photos by O?Donnell on the Truman Library site, four of them showing Truman and friends grouse hunting.

She sums it up: ?Apparently an unknown press photographer took it upon himself to re-present well-known pictures made by known photographers for his own benefit and glory? which many news outlets, including The New York Times, bought ?hook, line and sinker.?

The Times correction on Wednesday observes: “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. O’Donnell’s work supplied the incorrect information. The Times is researching other claims by Mr. O’Donnell reported in the obituary.”

Fulton closes by saying that ?many people? are now researching presidential diaries and travel logs as well as O?Donnell?s assertions that he took any photos in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ?Some of these can be identified as taken by other photographers and others are dubious.?

Faced with these probings, how does O?Donnell?s son, Tyge, respond? He has managed a Web site largely devoted to his father?s career and his photos from Japan. Contacted by E&P, he replied at length, opening with, ?Yes, I?ve been aware of these developing (pun not intended) discrepancies but you?re the first to ask me about the matter.?

He quickly admitted that it appeared that ?some of those photos in question are one and the same.? But before explaining how that might have happened, he took exception to claims that his father was not a White House photographer, and provided evidence in this regard. He said that his father was never the official photographer who worked out of the White House but rather was employed by the United States Information Agency to document presidential travels, events and visiting dignitaries.

He also offered a good deal of personal testimony to the fact that his father did take pictures in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (?we have the negatives?).

On the matter of the John-John Kennedy photo, Tyge O?Donnell agrees with those who say that it was not his father?s. But he adds: ?In my father?s mind, in the state he was in from the 1990s onward until his death, he honestly thought it was his photograph,? partly due to dementia.

O?Donnell?s letter follows. Anyone with further commentary or information on this should send it to the email below.


Dear Mr. Mitchell:

Yes, I’ve been aware of these developing (pun not intended) discrepancies but you’re the first to ask me about the matter.

It is obvious that some of those photos in question are one and the same. We’ll get to that in a moment. First I wish to address the comment Mr. Stearns made (“The guy was never a White House photographer”).

Although that official title may not exist, I think “White House photographer” was/is an appropriate title for what Dad did. Dad worked for the USIA (United States Information Agency) which was absorbed by the State Department years ago. I believe the USIA was a government-ran media agency who would release certain, official images for media use.

It was always the USIA’s intent to show different Presidents, dignitaries etc… in the best “light” possible. If you remember when Gerald Ford was president, he was known for falling down a lot. The regular press yearned to catch photos of Ford tripping but for the USIA, taking those type of photos would have been taboo. Dad was at President’s Johnson’s ranch when Johnson picked up his pet beagles by the ears. Johnson caught a lot of flack for that stunt, and Dad has pictures of Johnson and the beagles before and after the incident but not of the actually act. Dad knew it would have been wasting film for the photos would have never been used.

Dad travelled with Johnson on his surprise visit to Vietnam. My mother didn’t have any idea where Dad was until she saw a photo in the next day’s newspaper showing Johnson getting off the plane in Vietnam– with my father right behind him. We still have that newspaper — and the actual photos of Johnson and the beagles. President Johnson also gave my father a wind-chime welded out of horseshoes that use to hang at the ranch… and we still have that along with photos of it hanging at the ranch.

Some other photos we have are: My father sitting with Prime Minister Nehru aboard what would have been Air Force One (I believe it was referred to as 25000 back then) the photo was taken by a co-worker and shows Nehru actually taking a lighthearted photo of my Dad as Dad had just finished photographing the Prime Minister. We also have many photos of Nixon… some signed with a personal message to Dad.

Dad was with Nixon at the famous “kitchen debate” with Kruschev(?). Everyone who flew with Nixon on that trip got a special certificate proclaiming membership into Nixon’s “Kitchen Cabinet”. This was done by Nixon in good humor as a memento of the trip to his fellow travellers. Dad’s certificate is still hanging on his bedroom wall. One of the things I received recently was my father’s zippo lighter from that same trip (custom lighters, pins and tie-tacks were often used to commemorate a trip with the president).

Dad has a frame full of tie-tacks and pins that were given to him during his travels including a few PT-109 tie-tacks. When travelling with Presidendt Kennedy, Dad would have extra PT109 tie tacks in his pocket and he would re-stock Kennedy whenever the President would take one off his tie to give to a supporter. There are also photos–some posed, some candid, of Churchill (signed), Haile Selassie, Queen Elizabeth, The Shah of Iran (when he was still a prince), and various other foreign dignitaries along with Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. I can assure you all these photos were taken by my father.

Also, in the 1975 edition of World Book Encyclopedia under “K” for “Martin Luther King” there is a photo from the stage of Mr. King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech and my father is visible on the scaffolding in front of the stage documenting the event.

I tell you these things because my father was a White House photographer for lack of better words. He gave my half-brother a White House pass which was unheard of back then (due to the rarity of the item). I just learned this from my half-brother while at my father’s memorial service a few weeks ago.

Back in the mid-1990s, Dad made a trip to the National Archives and found what he thought were some of his unaccredited photos. It is true that any photos taking by my father and his coworkers were simply credited to the USIA. I think it was during this visit he picked up some of the photos in question. He would have been in his 70s then and the onset of his dementia was starting to take hold.

Regarding the JFK Jr. photo: Dad was definitely part of the caisson at Kennedy’s funeral. He told me ever since I was a child how he was one of the only photographers allowed to follow the caisson for the entire route… walking on the street. All other photographers had to stay behind the ropes on the sidewalk. There were a lot of photos taken that day by many people… and I know Dad took photos of the Kennedy clan and of John-John… but did Dad take the one everyone is questioning? I and obviously many others, don’t think so.

But I will tell you this: In my fathers mind, in the state he was in from the 1990’s onward until his death, he honestly thought it was his photograph. There is no doubt dad took a portrait of Truman after the inauguration… I have seen his photos of the festivities during that occasion… but is it the one in question? I admit it looks like my father’s work but it’s hard to tell being a mere portrait… and if it’s credited to someone else, then it’s probably not his. But, he honestly thought it was his photograph.

I’m pretty good at spotting my father’s work. When you grow up with a father who is a photographer, you just don’t have a “family album”; you end up with a “family album anthology series– volumes 1 through 7.” Because of all these photos, I am probably more familiar with my father’s style than anyone else. I do think most of the photos he got out of the archives were his but I also think he mistook a few as his own. Honestly, a professional photographer in a sound state of mind would never take someone else’s photograph, simply re-crop it, claim it as his own and think he would get away with it.

Let me share this with you: Starting as a teenager, I worked at a hobby shop in Brentwood, Tenn. and was there for nearly ten years. The famous singer, Roy Orbison, was a regular customer and I assisted him many, many times. I was young and wasn’t familiar with his music but I enjoyed waiting on him and his manager (Benny Birchfield) every time they came into the shop.

In the fall of 1988 Orbison was enjoying the new found success of “The Travelling Wilburys” and I was a big new fan. One day Orbison came into the hobby shop, bought some things and left… three hours later he was dead on the 6pm news. About a year ago, I visited Nashville and had lunch with some of my old coworkers from the hobby shop. We were reminiscing and the Orbison incident came up in conversation. I knew all the details… what he bought, what he said and how Bryce, a co-worker, was the last one to get his autograph. But my friends pointed out I wasn’t working at the shop that fateful day. “Of course I was!” I insisted. We argued about it but then I had to concede… on the actual date he died, I was visiting a friend in Knoxville. I had dealt with Mr. Orbison so many times and heard all the details about his last day at the hobby shop, I somehow convinced myself I was actually there on that particular day. It probably didn’t help I was young and partying all the time, but I think most of my mental faculties were in order then.

Whether young and partying or old and going senile, your mind can convince you of things if you let it… or if you want it to. If you’ve ever seen how senility and Alzheimer’s can deteriorate a person, you would understand.

I do take issue with the comment questioning Dad’s photos of Japan. I hope you know and concur that those are all indeed my fathers. We have the negatives and I personally have the contact sheets (received them only weeks ago) and I can tell you proof-positive every photo that has been published in his books or seen at his exhibits are indeed his. While constructing my Phoenix Venture website, I tried to find other photos of the A-bomb devastation in Japan and quite simply I couldn’t find any– not of the high quality or caliber of my father’s photos. Those photos are truly tragic art.

As far as the blame game, I’m not sure what to say. It’s not [his wife] Kimiko’s fault and I wish the various online groups and newspapers would leave her alone. She’s very confused by all this and doesn’t know what to do. She’s only been in the U.S. for a decade and doesn’t know a lot about the names, faces and dates of American history– I only know she and Dad did not claim any mistaken photograph(s) as their own on purpose. Kimiko told me the other night she’s having a hard time mourning my father’s death with all this going on.

I do agree with the article you forwarded to me about journalist checking the source first. Anyone can claim they’re Spartacus. If you read the Las Vegas Review Journal’s story about Dad’s death, you would find a more accurate version of his obit. It read in part : “Joe O’Donnell was one of the photographers who photographed John-John saluting his father’s casket…” I don’t think Mr. Stearns could even argue with that statement. I have also seen the famous salute in motion-film footage… maybe 8mm or 16mm… perhaps Dad was behind that camera.

I hope this clarifies some of the questions surrounding the photographs. I just want to clarify my father was not leading the life of Walter Mitty. I’m sorry for the can of worms it’s opened.

J. Tyge O’Donnell
Las Vegas


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