If the images in Carlton Ward Jr.’s portfolio were all you knew of Florida, you might think we live in an enchanted watery frontier.
An eighth-generation Florida native, Ward has captured almost every stitch of the Sunshine State’s undeveloped land. His work as an environmental photojournalist has cast a spotlight on conservation efforts in his home state and abroad. From behind the lens of his many Nikons, the 38-year-old Davis Islands resident has captured mangroves, cowboys, black bears, panthers, alligators and the list goes on.
One visit to his Hyde Park gallery will leave you breathless. Ward isn’t just a photographer. He’s a storyteller. His photos regularly appear in Smithsonian
, National Wildlife
, Africa Geographic
, National Geographic
and Outdoor Photographer
For his first book, The Edge of Africa
, the photographer spent eight months in the tropical rainforests of Gabon with the Smithsonian Institution documenting wildlife at the edge of Africa. For his 2009 book, Florida Cowboys
, Ward immersed himself in the state’s cattle ranches. The book’s photos and essays, which served as a nod to his family’s ranching roots, earned him a silver medal in the Florida Book Awards.
“Florida is the place I care about the most,” says Ward, who’s married with a 10-month-old daughter. “Development is happening everywhere, but it seems the Sunbelt is feeling the most pressure. My goal is to contribute to preserving Florida’s authentic identity.”
In 2012, Ward, together with a bear biologist, a conservationist and a filmmaker, led a 1,000-mile trek across the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The team’s 100-day journey, which began in the Everglades and ended in the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia, aired last year on PBS. A 2014 expedition is slated for this fall along the Gulf Coast.
Favorite photo op in Tampa Bay: Caladesi Island State Park.
“When I was first getting into photography and living in Clearwater that’s where I would go. It’s where I captured my first Florida nature photographs. We haven’t got much left in terms of green space. A place like Caladesi is one of the last remaining gems of what Florida used to look like.”
Most unexpected photo op in Tampa Bay: Alafia Bank Sanctuary.
“There’s an Audubon sanctuary where the Alafia River opens into Tampa Bay just north of Apollo Beach. It’s a 10-minute boat ride from Davis Island. To your right there are power plants. To your left is the Tampa skyline. It’s this little nook of natural Florida with the highest density of roseate spoonbills nesting in the country.”
Favorite mode of transportation: His 1986 Mako fishing boat.
“It’s the boat my dad got me and my brother when I was 13 years old. It makes for a great photography platform. It’s small enough to easily trailer, narrow enough to slide between narrow passages in mangroves and stable enough to run through heavy chop.”
The restaurant closest to his heart: Frenchy’s Original Cafe.
“When I’m at my parent’s house in Clearwater I’ll run a boat to Clearwater Beach, tie up and walk to the original Frenchy’s for the seafood medley. When I was in college I worked as a lifeguard during the summer. Frenchy’s has been there for as long as I can remember.”
The shoreline he calls home: Belleair Beach.
“My favorite memories are from Belleair Beach, surfing the hurricanes as a kid. The water is like a pond the rest of the year. Every couple years the water breaks during a hurricane. It’s pretty awesome.”
Best surfing on this side of the state: Anna Maria Island.
“There’s an area off Anna Maria Island –– White Avenue, where the waves are faster and heavier. They break top to bottom. The swell is usually a foot or two bigger than the waves in Pinellas County.”
Best place to call for a cab: The Shipwreck.
“If you’re at a wedding at the Sand Pearl and things are heading south, everyone usually ends up at the Shipwreck. Going there is like a rite of passage for all Clearwater Beach wedding guests.”
His go-to neighborhood eatery: 220 East on Davis Islands.
“It’s three blocks from my house. After a long day I’ll eat dinner at the bar or get takeout for my wife and me. I usually get a pasta dish called the Black Tie Affair. It’s shrimp and sausage.”
The recreational sport he wishes he had more time to do: Tarpon fishing.
“One of the better things you can do in this area is fish for tarpon off the tip of Anna Maria. Starting in June you’ll see stacks of boats out there fishing for tarpon. I get out there like once a year, which isn’t enough.”
Favorite holiday tradition: Watching 4th of July fireworks from a sandbar.
“Every 4th of July we anchor the boat at Three-Rooker Bar, float a cooler and take out the grill. Since high school I’ve watched the fireworks this way. I was a photo intern one summer for the Tampa Bay Times
and I had to photograph the festivities. It was the one and only time I watched the fireworks from land.”
Favorite place to get lost: Cockroach Bay.
“It’s a protected area down in the southeastern shores of Tampa Bay. It feels like the Everglades with mangroves as far as the eye can see.”
Favorite sweet treat: Coconut ice cream at Farrell’s on the Island.
“For years there was a place on Davis Island called Java and Cream. It closed, but Farrell’s hired some of the same employees and they’re serving the same Working Cow ice cream.”
Where he cut his teeth as a young photog: Fulmer Photo Services in Clearwater.
“George Fulmer knew everything about cameras and developing. I got into photography when I was in college. I’d go to Fulmer’s to get darkroom paper or lenses. It was an inspiring place.”
Favorite place to buy seafood: Star Fish Company in Cortez.
“Cortez is one of the last commercial fishing villages on this coast. Star Fish has a restaurant and fish market right off the Bradenton Causeway. They get fresh stone crabs and grouper right off their fleet.”
Favorite Florida creature: Black bear.
“It symbolizes the wild lands that remain and is an emblem of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.”
Favorite local claim to fame: Florida’s forgotten heritage.
“I like telling people that Florida was the first cattle ranching state in North America. I like talking about my cousins who were full-time working cowboys just 40 miles from Tampa. It’s a whole different world that’s not a part of our identity.”