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Remembering Bill Ray Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

21 January 2020

Bill Ray, who photographed everyone from Marilyn Monroe to the Hells Angels for Life and Newsweek, passed away earlier this month at his home in New York City. He was 83.

Born in Shelby, Neb., Ray was the youngest of four children. His father was a successful lumber merchant and his mother an artist who instilled in him the confidence to do anything.

As a child, he devoured Life magazine, traveling through the eyes of its famous photographers to distant lands. That nurtured a love for photography that had an epiphany when, on a trip to Omaha, he saw a Kodak developing kit in a shop window and realized he could develop his own photos. So he put together a darkroom at home and pursued photography with a passion.

He developed such a passion that at the age of 11, he was already a member of the Omaha Camera Club. He got his first staff job as a 17-year-old at the Lincoln Star Journal newspaper the day after he graduated from high school.

At the age of 69, he found someone to teach him Photoshop and Lightroom and show him the ropes on a Canon 5D.

He quickly made the front page with a picture of President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon and Joe McCarthy during a visit to Nebraska. Ray spent a few years at UPI in Chicago before a stint at the Minneapolis Star & Tribune that led to job offers from both National Geographic and Life.

After he'd seen a movie which Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers danced in Central Park he had always wanted to live in New York, so he drove there to start shooting for Life.

They sent him to Los Angeles, Paris and Beverly Hills where he shot the Beatles when they first arrived in Los Angeles in 1964, partied with Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate a year before the actress was murdered by Charles Manson in 1969. He was a fixture on hundreds of Hollywood movie sets, photographing Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Natalie Wood, among others.

At the same time he famously spent a month with the Hells Angels, saving one of the leaders who had cracked his skull in a bad wreck on his Harley. That changed the group's attitude toward the Life photographer following them.

He learned photography on view cameras and worked in 35mm and medium format film for his covers and celebrity photos. He thought his film expertise would always provide a niche but it was the end of that era. At the age of 69, he found someone to teach him Photoshop and Lightroom and show him the ropes on a Canon 5D.

He was able to mine his archives for black-and-white decorator prints, signing the prints in each edition. And he started producing books with Blurb, including his unpublished Hells Angels images.

He and his wife of 62 years and partner in his photo business, Marlys, took a walk in Central Park on Jan. 8, feeding a few birds and repeating their old ritual of kissing when they saw the nearly full moon rise. A Fred and Ginger moment.

"It was his best day in a long time," Marlys said. Hours later he suffered a fatal heart attack.

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