Bill Ray, Photographer of Indelible Moments, Dies at 83

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Bill Ray, one of the last staff photographers for the weekly Life magazine, who shot images as breathtaking as Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy and as indelible as the battleship Oklahoma’s guns firing on the Vietcong, died on Jan. 9 at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

His wife, Marlys Ray, confirmed the death and said that he had received a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation in 2018.

Mr. Ray turned down a job with National Geographic in 1957 to be a freelance photographer for Life, and joined its staff in 1964.

Over 15 years, he worked from bureaus in the United States and Europe to capture movie stars on sets, politicians on the campaign trail and homesteaders on the road from Detroit to Alaska. He also shot photos for a special issue of Life that looked at the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles a year after riots there in 1965.

William Robert Ray was born on Feb. 16, 1936, in Columbus, Neb., and grew up in the tiny nearby village of Shelby, which he once described as “a blend of ‘Our Town,’ ‘The Last Picture Show’ and ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.’”

His father, George, owned a lumber yard; his mother, Waunita (Williams) Ray, a painter who wanted her son to find a life outside their small town and supported his desire to be a photographer. By 11, he had a darkroom and professional cameras.

Late in his senior year in high school, he walked into the offices of The Lincoln Journal Star, where he brashly described his passion for photography to one of the newspaper’s owners. He was hired and joined the paper when he graduated in 1953.

After two years, he moved to the United Press bureau in Chicago. He left a year later to work for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. At a summer workshop held in 1957 by the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Hannibal, Mo., he impressed editors from National Geographic with a photo essay about a local barber shop.

The magazine hired him to work from Washington. But when he arrived there, he backed out, saying he’d rather not spend time in rain forests. He quickly found work as a freelancer at Life. He would stay with the magazine until it ceased weekly publication.

He went on to work for several other magazines, including Newsweek, where he photographed 46 covers and shot pictures for annual reports. His last assignment came several years ago, when he took portraits for St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan of rectors who had recently retired.

In addition to his wife, who was also his agent, he is survived by his daughters, Hillary, Sabrina and Ashley Ray, and five grandchildren.

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