Fred Ward’s family affectionately dubbed him “the Indiana Jones of photojournalism.”
Ward, who died at his Malibu home on July 19 from Alzheimer’s at 81, earned the description for a 50-year photographic career that took him across the globe to shoot historical figures, the embattled Everglades and his beloved gemstones.
Among the notables captured by Ward’s lens were political figures like presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and entertainers such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor.
Ward’s work has appeared in Life, Time, Newsweek and National Geographic. For National Geographic, he worked as a freelancer and traveled to more than 130 countries from 1964 to 1992. Many of his photos are on display at the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and even in space aboard the Voyager spacecraft.
Like the fictional movie character, one could also call Ward a Forrest Gump-figure for his omnipresence at so many significant events as history unfolded before his gaze.
When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Ward caught Jacqueline Kennedy returning to Washington with her husband’s blood still caked on her pink Chanel suit. He was there, too, to photograph a solemn image of his widow and their children watching the funeral procession as his casket left the White House. The photo was emblazoned on Life’s cover.
That year, Ward also snapped civil rights activist Gloria Richardson as she batted away a bayoneted rifle of a National Guardsman that had been pointed in her direction during a demonstration in Cambridge, Maryland.
In 1964, he snapped the Beatles’ first U.S. concert at the Washington Coliseum. He shot photos of a probing King in portraiture and a triumphant Robert Kennedy on the campaign trail — just before they were assassinated in 1968. During the 1970s, Ward traveled to Cuba for a series of candid photos of Castro that were compiled into his book, “Inside Cuba Today,” in 1978.
Ward had a Miami history. When Elvis Presley hit South Florida for a series of concerts at downtown Miami’s Olympia Theater in August 1956, Ward was there as an intern for the former Miami Daily News.
“The day editor told Fred, ‘You’re young. Go cover this guy, Elvis Presley,’ ” said his wife, Charlotte Ward, in an email to the Miami Herald. “Fred spent the day and evening at the Olympia Theater with Elvis, capturing images that still have viability today.”
Indeed, Ward managed to find Presley in a pensive mood backstage, the star clad in black with his pant leg rolled up to reveal white loafers. Another caught The King singing before an adoring throng of female fans.
For Ward, born in Huntsville, Alabama, on July 16, 1935, Miami was the start of his career and a location for much of his work. He moved to Miami with his parents in 1948 and attended Ponce de Leon School and then Coral Gables High School, from which he graduated in 1953.
There, his speech teacher and debate club coach K. Werner Dickson had a lasting impact. “Mr. Dickson must have recognized his brilliance because he lent Fred his personal camera, a Pentax, and gave him a key to his home so that Fred could learn to develop his photographs,” his wife said.
The high school paper published his first shots. So did the Gables High yearbook, which named him “Most Likely to Succeed.”
At the University of Florida, he married his wife in 1958, a year after earning his bachelor’s in political science and Far East history. In 1959, he earned his master’s in journalism and communications at UF.
Ward turned his camera on Florida’s fragile environment and the Everglades for National Geographic to make a point.
“With his dear friend and diving buddy Jerry Greenberg, Fred grew concerned about the reef die-offs occurring in and around Pennekamp Park [in Key Largo],” his wife said. Ward took photographs of the reefs and compared his images with those taken 10 years earlier by Greenberg. Ward’s pictures revealed whitened and broken coral.
Ward was disheartened. “The editor softened the story by titling it ‘The Imperiled Florida Reefs,’ but Fred’s title was accurate, ‘The Dying Florida Reefs’ — even more so with the addition of global warming,” Charlotte Ward said.
Ward, who published nine books on gems and “Golden Islands of the Caribbean,” was named Outstanding Journalist of the Year for 1980 by the Florida Scholastic Press Association. His presidential photographs were exhibited by the International Center of Photography in New York.
“He spent about three months with President Ford and he had incredible access,” said David Hume Kennerly, Ford’s official White House photographer, in the Washington Post. “They got along great. Fred’s disposition was a lot like Ford’s.”
In addition to his wife, Ward is survived by their children Kimberly Litle, Christopher, Lolly and David Ward, four grandchildren, and his sister Lynn Erckmann. Donations can be made to the Alzheimer’s Association for research at Ward’s tribute page.