Photographer Who Captured Reagan Assassination Attempt Dies Age 77

A black and white photo shows several men in suits rushing out of a building with a covered entrance. A prominent figure in the center is being assisted into a waiting car, as others appear to protect him. The scene is urgent and seems to involve security personnel.
Ronald Reagan grimaces after being hit by a bullet as he is bundled into the presidential limousine and Secret Service agents around draw their weapons. | AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Ron Edmonds has died at age 77. Edmonds was the senior White House photographer for The Associated Press (AP) and captured the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt in 1981.

Edmonds died of pneumonia, his wife Grace Feliciano Edmonds tells The Washington Post, on May 31 in Falls Church, Virginia. His remarkable set of photos showing President Reagan being shot outside a hotel in Washington before being bundled into the limousine where he was then whisked to a hospital for life-saving surgery are once-in-a-lifetime.

Edmonds had a vantage spot no other photographer had that day: being uniquely situated on the other side of the presidential limousine. His position allowed him to capture Reagan’s grimace after he had been struck by a bullet that had ricocheted off the side of the vehicle. It hit him in his armpit area breaking a rib, puncturing a lung, and causing the president serious internal bleeding.

Once Reagan was on his way to the hospital, Edmonds spun around to capture the would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. surrounded by the Secret Service with their guns drawn. The three other people injured by Hinckley’s .22-caliber revolver press secretary — James Brady, Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy. and D.C. police canine officer Thomas Delahanty — can also be seen in Edmonds’ photos.

Of course Edmonds was shooting on film so he wasn’t sure what he had until the film roll was out of the camera and the negatives were in the lab. He was praying they weren’t blurry.

“You did the best you could with the abilities that you’ve got,” he told the AP for a retrospective decades later. “I had the camera on him and I mean I saw everything through the viewfinder.”

For the set of photographs, Edmonds won the Pulitzer for spot news photography.

“Everything happened in such a quick, split-second. If you looked to your right to see what the shot, what the noise was, and looked back, the president was already gone,” Edmonds said. “The president immediately, when the first pop went off, he kind of grimaced in his face and that’s when I pushed the shutter down.”

However, upon acceptance of the prestigious journalism award, he commiserated that it was for something so bloody.

“I wish it had been for a picture that had not been of violence, of people being hurt,” Edmonds said on April 12, 1982.

The Reagan assassination attempt photo came on what was only Edmonds’ second day as the AP’s White House photographer covering Reagan. He said his job was to “watch the president at all times” and believes he did his job well that day.

Edmonds, who was born in 1946 in California, got his chance after taking a photography class in 1968 in Sacramento. His college professor encouraged him to shoot photos of an antiwar demonstration and he sold one of the images for $25 to United Press International.

He stayed on at AP traveling the world, covering prestigious sporting events, as well as every president. Retired director of photography at the AP, J. David Ake, said that while he was a competitive news photographer, he also looked out for his colleagues.

“If your batteries died or you committed the ultimate sin and ran out of film, Ron would hand you his,” Ake tells the AP. “He would insist he be the first one through the door at a photo op but he always made sure everyone else got through the door, too.”

Image credits: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds.