Published August 13, 2007
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Joe O'Donnell, who shot some of the first photographs after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and who served as a White House photographer spanning the terms of five presidents, has died, his wife said. He was 85.
O'Donnell's health had been declining for several years before his death Thursday, family and friends said.
O'Donnell grew up in Johnstown, Pa., and began his photography career as a young Marine at the outbreak of World War II, where he recorded the Pacific Campaign.
In September 1945, O'Donnell was one of the first outsiders to visit Hiroshima after its destruction by the atomic bomb. He put many of those photographs away in a trunk because he felt they were too painful to look at and did not revisit them for nearly 45 years.
In the 1990s they were displayed for the first time in Europe and Japan and in 2005 they were put into a book published by Vanderbilt University Press, "Japan 1945: A U.S. Marine's Photographs from Ground Zero."
After the war, O'Donnell began working as a freelance photographer in Washington, where he was recruited by the U.S. Information Agency to photograph presidents.
He worked as a White House photographer during the administrations of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. O'Donnell was one of several photographers to capture a picture of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket.
Because his photos were made for the government, they are considered public domain and he rarely received personal credit for his work, but they continue to be distributed throughout the world.
O'Donnell moved to Nashville after he retired in 1968 with a medical disability that was discovered to have been caused by the radiation exposure he suffered while photographing Japan after its surrender.
"He suffered without complaint," said Anne Brown, owner of The Arts Company, a Nashville gallery that often displayed his work. "In the time I've known him he's had many ailments and operations, but he felt that others suffered worse."
Brown described O'Donnell as "crusty, original, fun-loving" and "a generous person in his friendship."
Friend Furman York said, "He had in life the spark that he could also give to the pictures he took."
O'Donnell is survived by his wife, Kimiko Sakai, three sons and one daughter.
A memorial service will be held later, his family said.