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Toolin’ Around Town: Photographer Brant Ward, from the Argus to the Chronicle

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Working as a photographer for a small town newspaper like the Argus-Courier has many benefits — community events, social life, arts and entertainment and prep sports. It can also serve as an introduction for career-minded photographers seeking greater opportunities. Since I began writing for the Argus-Courier in 1979, I’ve worked with a number of photographers who’ve taken their creative talent to a higher level, reaching a wider audience and gaining stature in their chosen field.

While a column could be written about several of the successful photographers who documented the life and times of Petaluma while at the Argus-Courier, today’s column focuses on Brant Ward, who studied to be a journalist but switched to photography and went on to enjoy a colorful and rewarding career with the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ward joined the Argus-Courier in 1980. It was then published six days a week, its writing staff pounding out stories on manual typewriters, and its photographers shooting black-and-white film and developing those images in a cramped darkroom.

“I was amazed they hired me. I had a little writing experience but I really hadn’t done any photography work,” said Ward, a San Francisco native who moved to San Rafael and graduated from Terra Linda High School in 1972. He learned photography from his art director father. “I thought it might be a fun life.”

While working as a copy boy for the Chronicle and gaining writing experience at The Gator, San Francisco State University’s newspaper, he discovered the last letter sent to the media by the notorious Zodiac serial killer, who mailed taunting letters and cryptograms to Bay Area news agencies but was never apprehended.

In 1979, David Mitchell, publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Point Reyes Light, hired him as a reporter. Almost immediately, Ward became immersed in the chilling behavior of serial murderer David Carpenter, the “Trailside Killer,” who stalked nearby hiking trails killing 10 people, five in Marin County.

“I really enjoyed my time at the Argus-Courier. It was all fun. Every day we’d come up with a unique photo to run on the front page,” said Ward. “I had always planned on moving up to a bigger job. It was hard to make a living at a small daily newspaper, but I knew that was where I needed to start out.”

Working on Saturdays became more enjoyable for him after newcomer Amanda Ewing was hired as a proofreader and copy editor. They began dating and were married in 1984.

Ward’s big break came when Chronicle photographer John O’Hara (who later worked at the Argus) suggested he apply for a position in San Francisco. When the job became permanent, the Wards bought a home in Petaluma, where they raised their son, Aiden.

“We knew this would be a great town to raise a child,” said Ward. “Driving a company car and receiving a gas allowance made the commute easier and once I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge I never knew what the day might bring.”

The job was exciting and unpredictable, from breaking news to political rallies, protests, shootings and sports events. He might be on the steps of City Hall one moment and at the entrance of a seedy hotel half-an-hour later. He captured images of life from every corner of San Francisco, an array of raw emotions from heartwarming to tragic.

Ward was at Candlestick Park for the 1989 World Series when the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake jolted the stadium. While a co-worker headed to the heavily damaged Bay Bridge, he drove to the Marina District to record the fires and devastation.

After remarking to an editor that the homeless on the streets of the Tenderloin resembled a Fellini movie and pointing out the beautiful city had an ugly underside, Ward and reporter Kevin Fagan were assigned to do a five-part series on the homeless population. The series, “The Shame of the City,” ran during the holidays in 2003 and gained widespread attention. Over a 15-year period, the pair frequently revisited homeless encampments. In 2004, Ward and Fagan traveled to cities across the country covering the plight of the homeless.

Although he preferred assignments closer to home, like documenting a family in Chinatown struggling to get by, for example, he has photographed stories in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Somalia.

Staff photographers have their preferences. Ward avoided nature photography, but he liked covering sports events, including the World Series and Super Bowls. Well acquainted with the 49ers, Raiders and Giants, he often accompanied them on road games.

After 33 years with the Chronicle and 36 years working with newspapers, Ward retired in 2016. He and Amanda, who works at KRCB public television, now volunteer as reading tutors for first graders at La Tercera Elementary School, and he stays busy as a freelancer whose work can be viewed at www.brantwardphotos.com.

(Harlan Osborne’s ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ runs every other week. You can reach him at harlan@sonic.net)

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