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Joe O'Donnell dead and discredited

Pat Speer

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Here's Michael Griffith's online summary of O'Donnell's discussion with the ARRB

* Joe O'Donnell, a White House photographer who worked with Robert Knudsen, told the ARRB that Knudsen showed him autopsy photos that showed a grapefruit-sized hole IN THE BACK OF THE HEAD. This is yet another witness who saw a sizable wound in the rear of the skull. The evidence of a large wound in the back of Kennedy's head is important because the current autopsy photos show no such wound. In the autopsy photos the back of the head is virtually undamaged. Critics contend those photos have either been altered or the skull was cosmetically repaired before the pictures were taken, so as to conceal the large wound in the back of the head. A large wound in the back of the head, of course, would be characteristic of a shot from the front, not from behind.

* O'Donnell further told the ARRB that one of the autopsy photos Knudsen showed him showed what appeared to be an ENTRY WOUND IN THE RIGHT TEMPLE. This is key because there were several reports out of Dallas of a small wound in one of the temples. O'Donnell's account strongly tends to confirm those reports. Also, a defect consistent with a wound of entry can be seen in the right temple area on the autopsy x-rays, according to three doctors who have examined them (one of whom is an expert in neuroanatomy and another of whom is a board-certified radiologist).

New York Times September 15, 2007

Known for Famous Photos, Not All of Them His


Joe O’Donnell’s glowing legacy outlived him by less than a week. The man recalled by some as “The Presidential Photographer” with a knack for having a camera to his eye at just the right moment, became instead someone described as a fraud who hijacked some of the 20th century’s most famous images and claimed them as his own.

Mr. O’Donnell, a retired government photographer, died on Aug. 9 in Nashville at age 85. Obituaries published nationwide, including one in The New York Times on Aug. 14, praised his body of work over several presidential administrations, most of them singling out one famous picture: little John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his slain father’s passing coffin on Nov. 25, 1963. That picture was later determined to have been taken by someone else, and a closer examination of photos that Mr. O’Donnell claimed as his own has turned up other pictures taken by other photographers.

Retired news photographers all over the country, some into their 80s, reacted at the claims in the obituaries with shock and outrage as the only rights most of them have to their own pictures — bragging rights — were quietly taken by a man they never heard of.

“The more I hear about this, the more upset I get,” said Cecil Stoughton, 87, a former White House photographer. “I don’t know where he’s coming from. Delusions of grandeur.”

Mr. O’Donnell’s family said his claims to fame — made in television, newspaper and radio interviews, as well as on his own amateurish Web site — were not out of greed or fraud, but the confused statements of an ailing man in his last years. The only thing stolen, his widow and one of his sons said, was the soundness of his memory. While he was not formally diagnosed with a mental illness, he clearly became senile, his family said.

For them, the backlash has been severe and threatens to overshadow what they say are Mr. O’Donnell’s legitimate works, especially his chronicling of the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

“I just wish people would realize he was an extraordinary photographer,” said his son J. Tyge O’Donnell, 38, who grew up taking this father’s pictures with him to school to show classmates. “Don’t hold getting old against him.”

The story of Mr. O’Donnell’s colorful life and exaggerations continues to unfold. Tales he has told for decades have been questioned. Much of his travel history remains something of a mystery, because of difficulty in obtaining personnel information from the government from decades ago.

The quest for authorship of a number of famous photos is also complicated by the times in which he worked, when many news and government photographers were not credited for their pictures.

More discrepancies in Mr. O’Donnell’s work continue to surface, and there may be more challenges to their authorship. To date, the scrutiny has centered on the years in the 1950s and 1960s when Mr. O’Donnell photographed presidents and purportedly traveled with national leaders.

The scrutiny has extended to pictures he took as a 23-year-old marine in Japan that he said had been hidden in a trunk in his home until he unearthed the negatives in 1985. The pictures were published in a book, “Japan 1945: A U.S. Marine’s Photographs From Ground Zero,” (Vanderbilt University Press). The authenticity of those pictures has not been disproved.

If Mr. O’Donnell lied about his pictures, it is unclear why. He did not appear to reap financial gains from his claims. Perhaps desire for recognition played a role. He worked for the United States Information Agency, a government body that carried out overseas educational, cultural and media programs.

While he was believed to have witnessed important moments in history, he remained unknown to the public. But his family insisted that he simply confused attending various events with photographing them.

The controversy began with the obituaries describing his role in taking a famous picture of 3-year-old “John-John,” as was John F. Kennedy Jr.’s nickname, at the funeral.

Stan Stearns, a 72-year-old wedding photographer in Annapolis, Md., knows that picture well. He took it.

A photographer for United Press International, he kept a close eye that day on the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, and her children.

“I’m watching her, and she bent down, whispered in his ear,” Mr. Stearns recalled in a recent interview. “The hand went up. Click — one exposure. That was it. That was the picture.”

Mr. Stearns quit in 1970 and has been shooting weddings and portraits since. “I am very, very proud to have contributed this photograph to history,” he said.

But, it seems, so was Mr. O’Donnell.

He said for years that he was at the funeral and that he photographed the boy. “I had a telephoto lens on my camera, and we were across the street behind what we called the ‘bull rope,’ that we had to stay there,” he said in an interview on CNN in 1999.

The image showed on CNN that day was not his own. But neither was it the picture taken by Mr. Stearns, which leads to another complicating factor surrounding the John-John salute: several photographers captured the image that day, each distributed in different newspapers and magazines, many times without credit.

The salute picture broadcast on CNN in 1999 was actually taken by Dan Farrell, then with The Daily News. Now 76, he recalled the picture in an interview last week. “You never want to miss one like that, you know?”

Mr. O’Donnell often spoke of a picture, but his son said he never saw it.

The complaints over the John-John picture expanded to a fuller investigation of Mr. O’Donnell’s career by a group of mostly retired photographers and reporters angered by his false claim.

Several photographs at a Nashville art gallery called the Arts Company, which had represented Mr. O’Donnell and displayed more than 80 of his pictures, were found not to be his own. One of them, a famous image of President Kennedy piloting a yacht, is without question one taken by the photographer Robert Knudsen in 1962, said James Hill, the audio and visual archives specialist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Another renowned photographer, Elliott Erwitt, has become forever linked to the “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow in 1959, for his famous photograph of Vice President Richard Nixon poking Nikita S. Khrushchev in the chest during a heated exchange. He even attended an anniversary reception 25 years later, playfully poking Mr. Nixon in the chest.

So Mr. Erwitt was stunned when he was shown a late-1990s video of Mr. O’Donnell speaking with a Nashville news anchor, and Mr. O’Donnell’s description of having taken the picture.

“They were arguing,” Mr. O’Donnell told the reporter. “Khrushchev was very belligerent and said, ‘We’re gonna bury you.’ And Nixon reacted just as fast as he did, and pointed his finger at him and said, ‘You’ll never bury us.’ ”

Of course, this was mistaken. Mr. Khrushchev’s famous line, “We will bury you,” was delivered three years earlier, in 1956 in Moscow before Western representatives.

Watching Mr. O’Donnell’s interview last week, Mr. Erwitt said, “Unbelievable. The picture is so well known.”

The list goes on. A picture the museum said was taken by Mr. O’Donnell of the Tehran Conference of Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1943 is suspect. It has been credited in the past to the Associated Press and the United States Army Signal Corps, but its authorship remains unclear.

Mr. O’Donnell was born on May 7, 1922, in Johnstown, Pa., his family said. He joined the Marines shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, his son said. After the war and his trip to Japan, he worked for the State Department and later the Information Agency, upon its creation in 1953.

An archivist’s paper for a 1998 National Archives conference on cold war documentation cites several of the assignments in 1948 that took Mr. O’Donnell “from the home of a truck driver in Arlington, Va., to the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina to small-town polling stations in Lancaster County, Penn.” In an interview, the archivist, Nicholas Natanson, said he had examined the collection of photographs taken at the Kennedy funeral and found none taken by Mr. O’Donnell. But he said some photographs had no credits.

Pictures of Mr. O’Donnell standing beside several presidents were some of his proudest possessions, his son said, and there is archival evidence that he photographed Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson. But while Mr. O’Donnell referred to himself in his later years as a White House photographer, he did not seem to have ever held that official title.

He married four times, and had four children. He retired in 1968 after suffering a back injury in a car accident while working in a motorcade on an assignment. He moved to Michigan, where he owned an antiques store and acted as the sexton of a local cemetery, his son said.

The family moved to Nashville in 1979, J. Tyge O’Donnell said. The Arts Company’s owner, Anne Brown, said Mr. O’Donnell was known in the Nashville community as a former presidential photographer, an image no one seemed to question.

Mr. O’Donnell’s health had declined since Kimiko O’Donnell, 46 and also a photographer, married him nine years ago; they met in Japan, she said. “He wasn’t interested in showing any of his photos,” she said. “He had two rods in his back. Three strokes, two heart attacks. Skin cancers. Part of colon taken out.”

It is practically impossible to say Mr. O’Donnell never sold another photographer’s work as his own, but it seems he did not make any substantial profits off any pictures in the last decade or so.

“Where’s the money?” Mrs. O’Donnell asked. The museum owner, Ms. Brown, said she kept several prints Mr. O’Donnell claimed to have taken for sale in a box, but that she had sold only 9 or 10 over a period of years.

When Ms. Brown learned of Mr. O’Donnell’s death, she uploaded to the Web site the dozens of pictures from a computer disk provided by his family years earlier. She also sent a press release about the “Presidential Photographer” to Ventures Public Relations, which sent it to news outlets with misidentified photos of John-John’s salute and President Roosevelt attached.

The O’Donnells had one bit of what looked like good news these past weeks. Mrs. O’Donnell discovered, among her husband’s things, a photograph of John-John, saluting the president’s casket. Mr. O’Donnell had signed the back.

But yesterday, the National Archives matched it to a picture in its collection, and while there is no photographer’s name attached, the picture has been credited as having been taken by someone with U.P.I.

“That is disappointing,” Mr. O’Donnell’s son J. Tyge, said yesterday. “But it doesn’t mean he wasn’t there.”

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