Say it ain't so, Joe

You might think there was something perversely quaint about an analog photo scandal just now coming to light, in the early years of the 21st century--the Golden Age of Photoshop, they'll call it someday--but if the burgeoning fiasco involving the late Joe O'Donnell reminds us of anything, it's that you don't need a fancy Apple laptop or a clone tool to cheat your way to infamy.

One of the main themes of Sunday's piece in the Washingon Post Magazine was my ambivalence about giving up a career in journalism for a lifetime of weddings. But even I could not have guessed at how quickly those two distinct parts of my life would come crashing back together, a direct result of my story, proving once again, in the words of Jonathan Safran Foer, that everything truly is illuminated.

Take a look:

Within hours after my Confessions of a Wedding Photographer piece was published, I began to receive scores of congratulatory email messages. Several, I noticed, were from former colleagues at United Press International, the legendary wire service where I began my career in earnest. I asked some of these old friends how they knew about my story and I was told that it had been linked on the Downhold list serve, an online community for Unipressers, as we affectionately call ourselves. (Think Marines. Once a Marine, always a Marine.) I immediately signed up, got my first daily digest, and within a mere few minutes of reading, was absorbed by a raging debate about photo plagiarism and forgery, a subject that I have written about many times.

For a brief second I thought to myself, don't get involved. After all, I had just renounced my journalism birthright, at least humorously, to the world--if not the greater Washington, D.C. metro area--in the Washington Post. But to quote Al Pacino, "Just when they thought I was out, they pull me back in." And so today we're going to talk about journalism, not weddings.

When photographer Joe O'Donnell died this past August at the age of 85, many newspapers, from his hometown Nashville Tennessean to The New York Times, printed glowing obituaries detailing his long and storied photographic career. As one of the the first photographers to document the horrors of Hirsohima and Nagasaki, as the man behind the iconic John-John salute, or on the scene in the Pacific with Douglas Macarthur, or even with FDR, Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, O'Donnell was a journalistic Zelig, always in the right place and the right time.

The right place and time, that is, until John-John's salute was identified as the work of the great UPI photographer Stan Stearns, the Yalta Conference had morphed into the Tehran Conference, and even the Nagasaki and Hiroshima pictures fell into doubt. First documented at length by Marianne Fulton in The Digital Journalist, with a vital assist from the Unipresser group, which includes photo historian Gary Haynes and Annapolis native Stearns, O'Donnell's career is now being scrutinized with an electron microscope. (His first mistake was stealing from a UPI photographer. Fiercely proud, and for good reason, you don't want to mess with Unipressers. One of the other famous photos O'Donnell had claimed to have taken, that of Jackie, Bobby and Teddy Kennedy walking the funeral route, is also a legendary Stearns image.)

It appears that O'Donnell had been appropriating other photographer's images for years, re-cropping them, occasionally doctoring them, and then reselling them for profit on the Internet. It also seems as though O'Donnell was quite good at this. He would brazenly stamp the words "SAMPLE" over his images--images that he had stolen--to prevent others from resampling them. Chutzpah, as they say.

In his defense, O'Donnell's son has entered the fray, claiming his father was indeed a "White House photographer" for twenty years, and that he himself has the negatives from Hiroshima to back his dad's claims. In a letter to Editor and Publisher's Greg Mitchell, Tyge O'Donnell insists his father was not "leading the life of Walter Mitty," and that dementia may have played a part in his overreaching portfolio. It's all quite sad, actually, because O'Donnell is not here to defend himself, his widow is understandably confused by the furor, and his son appears to have some evidence that his father was in fact in famous places and around famous people. Just, perhaps, not the places and people in the images he and his gallery had been selling for years.

It's a story we've become quite accustomed to in journalism these past years--the unraveling of the journalist superstar, from Jayson Blair to Jack Kelley, from Brian Walski to, most recently, Allan Detrich. The first two, of course, were reporters who faked stories for The New York Times and USA Today, respectively; the latter, both accomplished photojournalists who tinkered with their photographs beyond any journalistic boundary. Walski was fired from the Los Angeles Times in 2003 after he "added" some extra drama to a photo of British soldiers standing watch over civilians in Basra. Detrich lost his job when years of "minor" photo doctoring was discovered. Apparently telephone polls and electrical wires were just too unsightly for his artistry--they simply had to go.

So what is it about these fudgers that made tampering with the truth so darn irresistible? It's clear that it's not a just a photography issue or, by the same token, just a writer's issue, as they all committed essentially the same acts: capital fraud and/or aggravated embellishment. And like baseball's Mark McGwire, or just about any one of 237 now-disgraced professional cyclists, each committed his deception while at the top of his game, not the bottom. Many of the guys tossed from the Tour de France were leading it, not losing it. It's not as if a cub reporter decided to fake out USA Today, or a entry-level photographer was sent to Iraq for the LA Times. No, in each case these were the stars, the cream of the crop.

I worked with Jack Kelley for many years, and like most folks at USA Today, liked him very much. His aw shucks Opie Taylor personality was instantly disarming. But I was also with Jack when he committed a bold and outright lie, a lie so big that I could only scratch my head in disbelief the next day.

Many years ago, I was with Jack on a cover story about the International Red Cross. The gist of the series was that newly uncovered documents showed that the Red Cross knew much more--and much earlier-- about Nazi concentration camps in World War II than they had ever admitted. As luck would have it, the head of the Red Cross was in from Switzerland that week, giving a talk at the National Press Club on an unrelated issue. We planned to "ambush" him after the talk to see if he might make a comment.

Hours earlier, in a coffee shop outside the shops at National Place, Jack and I chatted with the public relations officer of the Red Cross. His boss, the president of the organization wouldn't arrive for several more hours. Because of my family interest in the Holocaust, I asked him about the Red Cross and the plight of the Jews. He said something like, Look, it's not like we were the cavalry, riding in to the rescue. Good quote, I thought.

A few hours later, we waited for the Red Cross president's talk to end. As he entered an elevator, Jack asked him point blank about the concentration camps, as I tried to squeeze off a few frames. Clearly steamed, he responded with something like "Absolutely ridiculous," and the doors of the elevator closed. Imagine my surprise then, when the next day, high up in the story, the president of the International Red Cross was going on about--you guessed it--riding in like the cavalry.

Compared to Jack's later fabrications, this may seem like a minor incident, which is pretty much what Jack said, years later when confronted about it. But it shouldn't be dismissed so quickly. Jack's need to spice up an otherwise boring reaction -- "absolutely ridiculous" clearly didn't strike his fancy -- is key. The devil is in the details, and I believe that when the dust settles around Mr. O'Donnell's photographic plagiarism, there will be some evidence to show that he was in fact a photographer of some kind. And that he did travel to some of the places he claims to have. And that he even might have met some of the world leaders he claimed to have known. But these guys all get greedy. Some is never enough for them. They become addicted to the embellishment, always needing to improve the story just that much more. It's why Brian Walski changed his perfectly fine original photo and why Allan Detrich kept tinkering with backgrounds.

It remains to be seen whether O'Donnell's legacy can cling to any scrap of honesty at this point. Whether he truly was Zelig in the flesh, popping up in all the right historical moments, then addled by dementia in his later years, or simply a mediocre photographer with occasional access, sadly enhancing his fame through embellishment and outright thievery, will most certainly be revealed in the coming days. I wouldn't want to bet against the gang from UPI, that's for sure.

(The double irony, of course, is that Woody Allen's legendary film editor, Susan Morse, employed many of the same techniques seemingly favored by Joe O'Donnell--clever cropping and subtle alteration-- to create the opportunistic hero in Zelig. Unlike the digital magic employed by today's filmmakers, Morse used analog tricks more closely identified with the Cottingley Fairies episode of the early 1920's than Star Wars: Episode III. And to think I last wrote about the fairies back in 2005, when talking about a slew of other photo forgeries. It's a tangled web we weave.)

In the end, I return to cycling, the sport I loved to watch for so long, and the sport that is now being destroyed by the same many of the same ills plaguing journalism--cheating, deceit, artificial enhancement.

I'll leave it to Dave Stoller to say it best. Stoller, the wide-eyed hero of the 1979 classic Breaking Away, the greatest of all cycling movies--and one that all the Tour de France teams should be forced to watch in these doping days--is crestfallen when he realizes his idols, the famed Italian Cinzano cycling team, are as corrupt as everyone else.

"Everybody cheats, papa," he says, choking back tears. "I just didn't know it."


A quick update at 10:31 am Wednesday:

Gay Haynes, writing on the UPI list, mentioned that he could swear that the Jackie O photo on O'Donnell's web site belonged to Jacques Lowe, her peronsal photographer. He was close. A quickie--and I mean quickie--Google search has the photo being shot by USIA photographer Mark Shaw. This is not an exhaustive search, but curious nonetheless.

Here's the O'Donnell site, where he goes on about shooting the picture.

And here's a link to a site showing the same Jackie image, though credited to Shaw.


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