The Digital Journalist
The Bizarre Story of
Joe O'Donnell
August 2007

by Marianne Fulton

It all started with an Aug. 14 New York Times obituary by Douglas Martin for photographer Joe O'Donnell. Martin praised his exceptional work and took special notice of a picture made during President Kennedy's funeral cortege: "And the O'Donnell photograph of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's coffin became the most reproduced version of that memorable scene." Martin goes on to note that, because he was on the government payroll, Mr. O'Donnell got no personal credit for those photos, although he signed and sold copies of them after his retirement from the White House in 1968.

When Gary Haynes saw the reproduction of the John-John salute alarm bells went off. Haynes, a retired UPI photographer and author of "Picture This!" (Bulfinch Press, 2006), a compilation of great UPI photographs, got in touch with The New York Times. "I alerted The Times, on Aug. 15, the morning after the obit ran, that the photo they had credited to 'O'Donnell' was, I was 99% certain, the famous UPI photo shot by Stan Stearns…. There's no question that the photos are identical. It is impossible for two photographers, even if they are gaffer-taped together, to come up with identical photos.

"I not only relayed this to The Times, but also the Downhold group [a listserv for ex-UPI personnel], and trust me, if you want something checked out by a couple of dozen of the world's best journalists – only some of them retired – this is your group.

"Before long, guys who were THERE or who knew people who were there they could check with, were poking holes in the obit itself … to have taken some of the photos he claimed, O'Donnell would have had to have taken them as a teenager!"

The Times obit also ran in The Boston Globe and many other newspapers. The Tennessean in Nashville ran a glowing account of O'Donnell's life. Television news also picked up the story and image. The "O'Donnell" image was used (as of 9/2) on the State of the Art blog site from editors of American Photo. It says in part: "Joe O'Donnell was a White House photographer during the Kennedy years, and he snapped the enduring images of John Kennedy Junior saluting as his father's casket passed during the emotional state funeral in 1963. The photo was widely though anonymously distributed." Note that the bottom of the image has been strangely cropped.

Stanley Stearns' enlarged photo of John-John's salute that had worldwide distribution, taken on Nov. 25, 1963.
The image was cropped again when appropriated by Joe O'Donnell.

The photographer, Stan Stearns, sent this e-mail 9/2 to set the record straight: "The true story about John-John saluting … Made by me and it was a "world beater" for UPI. I was chosen to walk with Jackie and the world leaders from the White House to St. Matthew's for the JFK service. When we got there I had to go behind the ropes with the other 70-odd photographers. All squeezed in an area for 30. Wow! UPI photographer Frank Cancellare squeezed me in next to him…. I had the longest lens, a 200mm. ... I just watched Jackie. She bent down and whispered in [John-John's] ear. His hand came up to a salute. Click! One exposure on a roll of 36 exposures.

"As the caisson was rolling out to Arlington Cemetery I asked every photographer I could if they had the salute. Duh! Nobody saw it. They were concentrating on Jackie and the caisson. At this point I made a decision to walk the film into the bureau… When the photo was transmitted the credit was UPI/by Stan Stearns. Back in the day that was almost unheard of."

Stanley Stearns' full-frame photograph: "John-John Kennedy salutes his father's casket following the funeral of John F. Kennedy at St. Matthew's Cathedral on November 25, 1963." He said he knew he had THE photo of the funeral and walked his frame--the only one on the roll--back to the UPI bureau.

Stearns saw the moment happen and was ready for it. He knew that there was another image inside the horizontal and he chose to bring the one exposure to UPI himself. During a phone conversation he said, "It's unbelievable what this guy did. This guy was never, ever a White House photographer." Stan Stearns had friends calling him the moment they saw The New York Times and again when the picture was used on Katie Couric's CBS news program. Stearns' reaction to the use of his work? "The main rule of Journalism 101 is check your source—no one did that."

Joe Chapman, a retired photographer, UPI editor and manager, confirmed Stan Stearns' ownership when he wrote, in part, on the UPI listserv: "I did an overlay of it and other images, resized so you could identify differences. They are the same picture. Other people shot John-John, some excellent, but they won't overlay on Stan's. I can guarantee you that there is not an original negative other than Stan's (at Corbis) on that shot. If there is a negative, it is a copy. (These days, you'd just scan it and print)."

The image of John-John's salute began a deep and evolving investigation across the landscape of photojournalism. The UPI Downhold list continues to post the latest evidence of the true photographers' names. It didn't take much time at all to identify many of the images O'Donnell claimed to have taken. Web sites which have or had presented "his" pictures tell their own story (they are disappearing or having "maintenance" work done).

On MindSpring the words "White House Memories" headline the cover page of a site selling what O'Donnell claimed to be his own pictures—only they aren't. Underneath is a quote: "'The people I met and witnessed were incredible. The images I took with my Speed Graphic were ingrained in my heart.' A White House photographer, Joe O'Donnell," and then, "The images of the classic golden years taken through the eye of his camera are now available on the Internet marketing."

Inside there are two galleries: the first, President Kennedy and his life; the second, Presidents Roosevelt through Johnson, Vice President Nixon and V.I.P. In the first gallery is another Stan Stearns photograph of the Kennedys – Jacqueline, Bobby and Ted walking together enroute with the casket of President Kennedy.

While O'Donnell may have had an occasional assignment at the White House he was not a "White House photographer." There are records, not to mention institutional memory. "We know he wasn't a White House photographer. There are details on Roosevelt's travel. There is absolutely nothing that connects him to Roosevelt except that he was alive at the time," said Joe Chapman on 9/1. Indeed, O'Donnell asserted that he took a picture of FDR and Eleanor after the second inauguration. He would have been about 14 years old in 1937.

Looking at the "White House Memories" site and other so-called O'Donnell collections, Chapman continues, "There is no difference between other photographs O'Donnell claimed and those of Mark Shaw, Elliott Erwitt, and others. The overlays demonstrate they are identical. [Capt.]Cecil Stoughton shot the LBJ swearing-in on Air Force One without any assistance from O'Donnell. A lot of people have worked cooperatively on this. This is just hokum."

Also on O'Donnell's "White House Memories" gallery page is a link: "How To Order." Here one can purchase an 8 x 10 for $120 or the image on canvas for $295 and a handling cost of $25. A fairly stiff price for someone else's work.

At his gallery's site, The Arts Company/Nashville, his name and work has been expunged (although his wife Kimiko Sakai's photographic work seems to be there). When we first checked the site they were announcing O'Donnell's upcoming retrospective: "The Arts Company will be presenting a commemorative exhibit of Mr. O'Donnell's presidential and Hiroshima photographs in the early fall. Exact time and details to be announced in September." There are currently no references to that event. Did anyone at the gallery know the provenance of the work it displayed on its Web site?

Joe O'Donnell said he had made the portrait of President Truman after he was sworn in as president. Going to the Truman Library site, one discovers that the same picture is used on every page. Clicking on the portrait brings up a page with the archival record of the portrait that states: "Portrait of President Harry S. Truman, which was used as the official campaign photo for the 1948 campaign. A favorite of the President." It was made c.1945 by Frank Gatteri.

"Portrait of President Harry S. Truman, which was used as the official campaign photo for the 1948 campaign. A favorite of the President,” from the Truman Library.
Although the Truman Library states that this was a campaign portrait taken before the president's only inauguration, Joe O’Donnell states on his "Memories of the White House" site that he made the portrait of President Truman after he was sworn in as president. On an enlargement it is possible to read c. Joe O'Donnell.

In the Oral History section is an interview with Gerald Paul Pulley, Commander U.S. Navy, on June 17, 1993. Pulley was the official photographer to President Truman. Pulley traces the presidential photographers from Coolidge through Truman. He doesn't mention O'Donnell.

As information about O'Donnell came to light Cmdr. Pulley, who will be 85 in October, was contacted by the UPI group. He had never heard of O'Donnell. If O'Donnell was at the White House during the Kennedy years he would have worked for Capt. Stoughton but he doesn't know who O'Donnell is either.

Pulley further said, "And following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, there was a lapsed period where President Truman didn't insist on having a personal photographer. For one thing, I think it was because he was concerned it might cost the taxpayers some money, and he wasn't about to do that. So it wasn't until late in '47 that they decided they better get a photographer, and they convinced him that they could do like Roosevelt had done and have a Navy photographer support him."

There are five photographs by O'Donnell on the Truman Library site: four are of Truman and his friends grouse hunting (no more than mediocre images) and one listing of "Margaret Truman with Connecticut dignitaries."

The original caption is still adhered to the UPI TELEPHOTO photograph. It reads: "1/20/65 WASHINGTON: In a solemn ritual in the Capitol Plaza, Chief Justice Earl Warren (right) swears in Lyndon B. Johnson as the 36th President of the United States. Looking on are Lady Bird Johnson and Vice Pres. Hubert H. Humphrey."
Again, O'Donnell has severely cropped a photograph. Note that Earl Warren’s hand has moved up and over while President Johnson’s hand remains the same in both photographs. The person in the light coat has moved, however. This could be another frame by the SAME UPI photographer.

One final comparison—of the many possible—is the photograph of LBJ being sworn in on Jan. 20, 1965. The original picture was clearly labeled "UPI TELEPHOTO." O'Donnell cropped an image as he had done in the John-John photograph and presented it as his own. Since the one he claimed has a change in the position of the person in the white coat there is speculation that this image may be the frame next to the UPI original wire photo made by the same photographer. O'Donnell claimed other photographers' work as his own but was careful to have "Sample" printed across the surface to prevent the photograph from being easily stolen from him.

O'Donnell originally claimed to have taken the photograph of FDR, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin at the "Yalta" conference. The first mistake was that the picture was made at the Tehran conference earlier. Just sticking to his own biography, he must have been in two places at once because the occurred at the time he said he was working as an Army photographer in the Pacific.

What can we make of this? 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. He took credit for others' photographs in writing and during interviews. This was not a mistake of memory; it was intentional. The New York Times, The Tennessean, American Photo,The Boston Globe, and many other press organizations bought it hook, line and sinker. The New York Times apparently questioned the public-relations man who fed them the story and pictures. He reassured them twice that the print was the real thing. The discrepancies were known by the next day yet as of today, Sunday, Sept. 2, no correction has been published.

Many people are researching the detailed presidential diaries and travel logs as well as O'Donnell's assertions that he took many photographs in Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped in two cities about 200 miles apart. Some of these can be identified as taken by other photographers and others are dubious. There were careful records of who was in Atomic Japan and when. He traveled there many times with his wife Kimiko, also a photographer.

In the meantime, the press record needs correcting—but who's minding the store?

With Joe Chapman, Bernard Cleary, Tom Foty, Gary Haynes and Stanley Stearns

© Marianne Fulton