The long remembered picture of three-year-old John F Kennedy Junior saluting his father’s cortege at the funeral that followed the assassination in Dallas has turned out to be not the only picture wrongly attributed to veteran American photographer Joe O’Donnell who died last month at the age of 85.
A glowing tribute to his work that ran in the New York Times (Press Gazette, 7 September) has sparked an investigation into how many famous pictures he really took. Not that many, it’s now revealed.
In fact, an investigation into his life by a somewhat embarrassed NYT reveals that although O’Donnell did work for the Government (he was for a long time with the US Information Agency), he was never the official White House photographer. He handled pictures that were often circulated by photo agencies and were assumed to have been his – which he never denied.
Numerous retired photographers, many in their eighties, have reacted with shock – and in some cases outrage – to discover that many of the pictures they took over the yeas had been ‘hi-jacked’by someone many had never heard of. Some are questioning O’Donnell’s motives.
But O’Donnell’s family say that his claims to fame – which he often made on television, in newspapers and radio interviews – were not motivated by greed or fraud, but the confusion of an ailing man in the last years of his life. While never officially diagnosed with mental illness, his family admitted he was senile.
The storm that has broken out now threatens to overshadow what some say was O’Donnell’s legitimate career, especially his work as an Army photographer who chronicled the after-effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WW2. What has complicated research into his work is that it was a time when photographers rarely got official recognition for their work
His family believe he often confused attending various events with photographing them. It is now known that the iconic picture of John F Kennedy Jnr saluting as his father’s coffin passed by was taken by Stan Stearns, a photographer for United Press, now 72 and running a wedding and portrait photography business in Maryland. Several other photographers that day, it’s now conceded, took similar shots.
Other pictures which now turn out to have been wrongly attributed to O’Donnell include a picture of JFK at the tiller of his yacht sailing off New England and the picture of Richard Nixon poking a finger in the chest of Nikita Khrushchev during their famous ‘kitchen debate’in Moscow in 1959.
What has emerged from the New York Times investigation is that O’Donnell – although lebelled by some as a fraud – never made substantial financial profits from any of the pictures wrongly attributed to him. There is no proof that he ever personally sold anyone’s else’s pictures as his own.