A Thousand Words: The Life of Photographer Fred Ward

In 1948, 13-year-old Fred Ward’s family departed the small-town ethos of Huntsville, Ala. for the bustling, balmy Miami, Fla. Perhaps it was the cross-cultural exchange of multicultural south Florida, or perhaps it was the thought of a larger world connected by letters and packages, seen by his postal worker father, that made young Fred dream big. Whatever the inspiration, one of his high school teachers saw it and had an inkling that giving Fred the tools to capture the world would serve his dreams. It was true; from the first printing of Fred’s photograph in the school newspaper, he was enamored with the power of photojournalism.

Two years into college, while on a summer stint at the Miami Daily News, Fred got an assignment to photograph a graduating Gables classmate, Charlotte, who loved writing and editing. The spark was vivid as the two recognized each other’s talents. Fred was two years ahead in his class and, waiting until he could not wait any longer, took Charlotte out on a date her first night at college. From then on, their fate was sealed. They stayed together at the University of Florida until Fred completed his master’s, while Charlotte finished her BA and earned her teaching certificate, one year after their marriage. Not forgetting his serendipitous debut in the Coral Gables High newspaper, Fred earned his way through college by photographing for student and local papers, while studying political science. In a postmodern era of sociopolitical turmoil, he began to realize the potential to show truths, to reveal the hidden, to share the silent stories.

As though Fred’s camera was a natural part of his body, he excelled quickly in his skills and was rewarded with the opportunity to teach photography at UF, just one semester after taking his first course in it. He and Charlotte spent their downtime at Ginnie Springs, where Fred set his heart on using the crystal-clear water to his advantage. Scuba was relatively new and the Aqua Lung had just hit the market. Fred ordered his Aqua Lung as soon as feasible and commissioned custom-built Plexiglas casing for his camera. He and Charlotte had no formal training in diving — it wasn’t widely available — but true to form, Fred jumped in feet first. They stuffed rocks into their pockets to help them dive and, at the bottom of the springs, discovered a new passion that would reflect their lifelong love for each other.

They frequently dived with friends from south Florida, Jerry and Idaz Greenberg, in a recreational–professional collaboration that, in 1990, produced a heartbreaking project on coral reef bleaching in the Gulf of Mexico. Fred was dismayed by a National Geographic editor’s dismissive presentation of the coral death that Fred had seen with his own eyes and lenses. With Charlotte by his side, though, being a modern-day muckraker was not only possible but opportune. Both loved to write, and as a teacher and master communicator, Charlotte understood how to tell the stories. In many ways, their talents and personalities were perfectly complementary. She was the Mulder to his Scully, bright-eyed and optimistic while he questioned narratives and dug deep into stories, earning him the family nickname of “Indiana Jones.”

Their first child, Kim, was born in 1966 in an unpleasant hospital experience, and Charlotte greatly wanted to pursue home birth for their next child. In yet another endeavor ahead of the trends, Fred and Charlotte located a home birth doctor and had their next three children at home, with Fred catching their last, David. They documented the experience and interviewed dozens of other couples who had home births. The project resulted in a photoethnographic volume, The Home Birth Book.

The couple set aside their diving and traveling days for a while, aside from occasional cross-country trips with the kids and dog in their Winnebago. Fred had been working for National Geographic and traveling around the world. A world map of pushpins with his assignments began to look less like a map and more like a sheet of candy buttons.

Not unlike Dr. Jones, Fred crept into the shadow realm behind the illusions and booby traps. He examined every aspect of the pop cultural sphere and its shadowy corners, discovering the brooding soul beneath the celebrity persona, capturing the quiet moments of world leaders, revealing the corruptive secrets of environmental and urban decay. It would have looked like happy accident the first, second, maybe third times, but after dozens, even hundreds, of the “perfect moment” being caught on film, Fred started to appear supernatural in his gift. Charlotte always thought of it as something innate to Fred’s being.

Fred’s ingenuity, bordering on foolhardiness, played a hand. Having taught himself to dive and take photographs underwater, teaching himself to fly and take photographers from the air was a logical next step. He obtained a helicopter in the pursuit of aerial shots; it was also helpful in shortening the commute from Washington, DC to his house in Bethesda, Md., where his daughter and dog would occasionally join him in flight.

The arrangement with National Geographic soured after 28 years when their editorial framework shifted in 1991, while Fred was working on a gemstone series for the magazine. After first printing, Fred retained the rights to the photographs and, with a newfound passion for gemstones, opened a new line of projects with Charlotte. There was no need for an alarm clock in their house as they hopped out of bed every day with a renewed creative life. They produced nine books on gems, with Charlotte as editor and Fred as a newly certified gemologist. Once again jumping in with feet first, Fred completed his Graduate Gemology certificate with the Gemological Institute of America in a record-setting 90 days.

On July 19, 2016, three days after turning 81, Fred passed away in his home in Malibu, Ca. It had been 68 years since his pivotal move to Florida, 63 years since the Coral Gables High yearbook named him “Most Likely to Succeed,” and 58 years of marriage to Charlotte. Charlotte was met with a striking revelation: Now, she could finally see Fred as a whole person, a swath of creative potential and endless drive across the candy-button map of a rapidly changing world. His vision had taken a lifetime to realize — and what a life it was.

Frederick N. Ward (1935–2016) was a prolific photojournalist whose work was printed in Time, Life, Newsweek, and National Geographic, and is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, the International Center of Photography, and the Voyager spacecraft. He has won multiple photography awards, as well as UF’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. He documented powerful, significant moments such as the Beatles’ first US concert and Jackie Kennedy after JFK’s assassination, and captured candid shots of prominent figures such as Cuban leader Fidel Castro, singer Elvis Presley, US president Gerald Ford, and civil rights activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gloria Richardson. His work encompasses a wide range of ethnographic, nature, celebrity, and political photography, in 131 countries over a span of 50 years.

Fred appreciated the mentors he had in “crusty, old-time” investigative journalism. Special friends and worthies were Hugh Cunningham, Buddy Davis, and Ralph Lowenstein. Contemporaries include Ed Johnson, his friend, fraternity brother, and journalist comrade, and whistleblower Louie Psihoyos, director of the documentary The Cove.

Near the end of his life, Fred’s brilliant mind suffered a silent killer, Alzheimer’s. Donations in Fred’s name may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association to support research on prevention and treatment of this devastating disease.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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