(This article is a follow-up to a previous post.)
NEW: See Correction, Update, and comment at the end of this article.
Several sharp-eyed readers noted that The New York Times has now published a somewhat curiously worded "Correction" for its obituary of former U.S. Information Agency photographer Joe O'Donnell. In the correction, the Times stated that it "...is researching other claims by Mr. O’Donnell reported in the obituary."
Meanwhile, I had a long and fascinating phone conversation with Jonathan Marx, the beleaguered arts reporter for The [Nashville] Tennessean, which first published the O'Donnell obituary with some fraudulent photo credits. Among many other things, he told me that he got much of his information from The Arts Company, which is a bricks-and-mortar as well as an online gallery. The Arts Company, meanwhile, has excised all trace of Mr. O'Donnell from its website. In addition, Jonathan Marx told me that the Times reporter did not use him as a source (although of course he may have used his article, which was published three days before the Times obit).
As Jonathan noted several times, it's difficult to actually pin the misattributions on any one source. Was it the gallery? The photographer? His relatives? It's difficult to say. Jonathan was reluctant to attribute any actual wrongdoing to anyone. His view seems to be that it's all an unfortunate misunderstanding, possibly compounded by the photographer's senile dementia late in life and the health problems he suffered as a result of photographing at Hiroshima. To me, the opposite seems true. The fulcrum point—missing as it may be—is that, at some crucial juncture, someone copied, even copyrighted as Joe O'Donnell's, and offered for sale more than one photograph taken by someone else. This is dishonest, and I can't see how it could all be just a good ol' no-harm, no-foul mistake. From the point of view of the photojournalistic community, far from being a case of just a couple of errant attributions that can safely be dismissed while the rest of the story remains intact, a yawning credibility gap has been opened, and the false attributions call into question the authenticity of every other claim Joe O'Donnell ever made and the provenance of every other picture he claims to have taken.
What seems certain at this point is that O'Donnell was a photographer for the U.S. Information Agency and most probably photographed at some point at the White House in some sort of official capacity. He also probably actually did photograph at Hiroshima after WWII, which remains his main claim to fame. I've seen no evidence so far that he actually held the title of "White House Photographer" (an official position) at any time. (J.F.K.'s White House Photographer, for example, was Jacques Lowe,* whose tremendous archive was housed in bank vaults in the basement of the World Trade Center and was completely destroyed on 9/11.)
One thing the story points up is the difference between local stories and national ones. Apparently Joe O'Donnell's "amplified" accomplishments and tales of PJ derring-do had been well known around Nashville for years, and had never been called into question.
However, it turns out that there may have been at least one previous example of the local story going national. Apparently, at the time of John Kennedy Jr.'s death, the Stearns photo of the salute was used by TIME magazine and attributed to O'Donnell in some way. I haven't been able to confirm this. Whether Stan Stearns objected to this, and whether TIME made any correction later, I don't know.
My personal opinion of the matter is that this is probably an example of "personal folklore" or personal re-invention for the purposes of aggrandizement, similar to the resumé-faking stories that flit across the news from time to time. O'Donnell may or may not have believed his own bullshit; he may have been the one to appropriate the work of others as his own, or—possibly—someone else may have done it for him. Whatever. But he probably invented a lot of stories that are still circulating in order to build himself up, stories that members of his family and his Nashville friends accepted as true for many years.
Consider this fascinating case, in which a man assumed for his own the identity and past accomplishments of another man, a baseball pitcher, based on the fact that he shared the same name and a physical resemblance. In this instance, as well, the story "worked" for the appropriator, locally, until his death and his obituary exposed his chicanery. Even after the truth was revealed, others have been reluctant to relinquish the fairy tale version, as in the instance of the longtime golf buddy who refused to read the exposé story.
The same seems to be true to some extent in Nashville. The similarities of the rest of it to the O'Donnell case, although of course not probative, seem obvious.
Mike (Thanks to Stephen Gilbert and Kent Phelan)
*CORRECTION: Bernard Cleary tells me that this is not true: Lowe was the personal photographer of the Kennedy family, and not a Federal employee, which is why his negatives were stored in safety deposit boxes and not in a Federal facility or institution.
UPDATE: There is now a further article called "Mystery Man" with some additional research, written by the Nashville Scene's John Pitcher, for his appealingly titled column "Pith in the Wind." (Thanks to Bernard.)
The Arts Company has not returned my e-mails.
Featured Comment by andyh: "Compare this recent, fascinating, infamous story from classical music, where a reclusive English pianist and her producer husband issued a very large number of beautifully reviewed CDs that turned out to be literally copies of commercially released recordings by other pianists, sometimes altered only very slightly. It was discovered when someone who was ripping a CD in iTunes noticed that the software led him to an online database record for another recording. It's not utterly clear whether the pianist herself was in on the fraud, or whether her husband fooled her, when she was ailing, as well, playing back sounds to her that she never made. Quite sad either way. It's amazing it went on as long as it did before it was noticed. See: The Gramophone, The Washington Post, and Wikipedia for more.
Featured Comment by Matt Mikulla: "I was at one time employed by the dealer 'The Arts Company' about 1 year ago. I met Joe and his wife Kimiko several times. Joe was very old, didn't talk much, and would sit down while Kimiko would handle business. We would keep a small bin of Joe's (supposed) photographs in the front gallery. At this time he was so old he could not write historical captions and 'memories' on the photos so Kimiko would write for him. It was amusing because the grammar and usage was lacking and the English was slightly broken. However, I believe Joe did sign the photographs because the writing style was obviously different from Kimiko's. I have to admit I was very respectful of Joe's 'work' and his resumé. From what I knew he was the presidential photographer for several administrations. It was my job to read the bios we had on had for the artists and photographers represented through the gallery. It was also my job to use that information to sell the work. Believe me, it's always easier to sell work that you respect, especially work with such historical significance. As an art artist, photographer, and someone who represented the photography in question, I feel violated. I can only imagine if my work was ripped off. I am just now discovering all of this now but I wonder when he began passing other's work off as his."