Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And That's the Way it Was -- Oh, Really?

The New York Times has an interesting opinion piece today by filmmaker Errol Morris.

His subject is two photographs taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War, part of his Valley of the Shadows of Death series in 1855. One photos shows a battlefield road, with cannonballs lining the side of the road (above left). The other shows the road with the cannonballs littered throughout (below right). His question? Which photo came first and did Fenton stage the photo by scattering the cannonballs along the road?

The essay was initiated after Morris read a passage in Susan Sontag's latest book On Regarding the Pain of Others about the photos. She concludes the photo with the cannonballs on the road must have been staged and that it was taken after the shot of the road without cannonballs. Morris says there is little evidence to come to this conclusion.

He's asked Times readers to judge for themselves.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Famous Photographer Dies. Obituaries Tout His Achievements. No One Realizes It's All A Lie.

When "photographer" Joe O'Donnell died in mid-August, a number of newspapers, including The New York Times, ran his obituary. Nothing unusual about that. All sorts of people get obituaries when they die.

And why shouldn't O'Donnell get some posthumous ink? He was a famous photographer right? He shot the iconic photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket at President Kennedy's funeral after all.

Well, it turns out that it was all a lie. O'Donnell never took any of the photos he's allegedly famous for. Unless you use "took" in the sense that he stole them and tried to claim them as his own. A section of the Stan Stearns original photograph of John-John saluting at his father's funeral is reproduced above.

It's a complicated story, but Marianne Fulton in The Digital Journalist does a good job in unraveling the mystery.

A section of O'Donnell's cropped and appropriated version of the famous photo is at left. It's clearly the same photograph, just cropped differently.

Here's how the mystery came to light, according to Fulton:

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.

Still, the central question in this whole mess remains, will the newspapers, magazines and news outlets who ran the glowing obituaries of O'Donnell touting his photographic achievements run corrections?

O'Donnell's son answers some of the criticism here.

The obit also ran in American Photographer magazine. Fortunately some astute readers have commented on the article and corrected the mistake in the comments section of the magazine's web site.