The Obama HOPE Photo Mystery Continues!

After months of searching, I identified the photographer behind the picture that became the campaign’s most enduring image. Even he didn’t know he had taken it.

01.19.09 3:23 PM ET

After months of searching, I believe I've identified the photographer behind the picture that became the campaign’s most enduring image. Even he didn’t know he had taken it.

Update: After my scoop "identifying" the source photograph and photographer of Shepard Fairey's iconic HOPE poster, Purchase College digital photography teacher Nathan Lunstrum came up with a different image that appears to be a better and less convoluted match. If this new photo is indeed the real photo, it seems to have been taken by Manny Garcia, a Washington-based freelance photo journalist. See my blog post about it here.

I believe that last week I solved the biggest photographic mystery of the 2008 election: I found the photographer who took the photo that was the source for Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama HOPE prints.

My search began last fall, when I recognized that Fairey’s prints were becoming the definitive visual of the campaign, and I began asking everyone from Amanda Fairey, the artist’s wife, to Holly Hughes, the editor of Photo District News, if they knew who took the original photo. No one could seem to pin it down. Shepard Fairey was on record as saying it came from a Google Image search, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) track it back to the source.

He’d seen the HOPE poster countless times and never made the connection to his own photograph.

After several months of digging, I wrote an inquiry on my blog on January 14 asking if anyone knew the answer to the mystery. That day, a computer programmer named Mike Cramer sent me a link to his Flickr page. Cramer had traced the picture back to a 2007 story on that credited the photo to one Jonathan Daniel of Getty Images. Cramer also showed how the picture was flipped, making the source almost unrecognizable. “I stretched the original a bit (really, a tiny amount) and flipped it horizontally, but didn't need to rotate it at all,” he wrote on Flickr.

Agency photographers are not easy to get a hold of, but I managed to contact Jonathan Daniel via email. To my surprise, he responded that he was positive he was not the photographer who took the picture. The plot thickened.

Jewel Samad, AFP / Getty Images

I immediately contacted picture editor Mark Rykoff, who was extremely helpful in trying to find the correct attribution. After investigating, he called me back and told me I was correct—the credit was indeed wrong. He fixed it, and pointed me toward who he now believed was the correct source, a Reuters photographer named Jim Young.

A call to Reuters left their Washington desk reeling, but they put me in touch with their Media Pictures person in New York, a woman named Nancy Glowinski, who was cool, calm and collected. She did some checking, and confirmed that Jim Young had indeed snapped the photo in question.

As soon as changed the photo credit and word got out, Young’s name swirled through the blogosphere. Tom Gralish, a photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who had also spent months trying to track down the photographer behind the HOPE poster, was the first to blog about it. Reuters was initially—and understandably—put out that they hadn’t been credited as the original source of what turned out to be the presidential campaign’s most enduring visual image, but no laws had been broken.

Like it or not, Fairey's use of the picture is well within the parameters of what’s considered "fair use." His transformation of the image—flipping and re-orienting it, adding jacket, tie and the "O" Obama logo, and converting it to his block print style—make it consistent with all legal precedents for public use. (Fairey is the artist behind the now-famous Andre the Giant prints that are probably wheat-pasted all over your city.)

But perhaps the best proof that Fairey transformed the photo into something all his own is that Young, a Washington-based photographer who has taken, in his words, “thousands” of pictures of Obama, was not even aware that the most ubiquitous image of the election was based on his photograph. He’d seen the HOPE poster countless times and never made the connection to his own photograph, which he snapped at a 2007 Senate confirmation hearing.

Young and Reuters worked with me to create an edition of the photograph for the exhibition I have opening at my gallery on Tuesday, “Can & Did—Graphics, Art, and Photography from the Obama Campaign,” and a print has already been bought by the Museum of Fine Art in Houston along with one of Fairey’s HOPE prints.

It’s nice to see that in this new era, everybody wins.

James Danziger was the Director of Photography at the London Sunday Times Magazine, Features Editor of Vanity Fair, and Director of Magnum New York. He runs the gallery Danziger Projects in New York and blogs at The Year in Pictures.