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LIFE Photographer Bill Ray dies at age 83
Private Elvis combing his hair, 1958. © Bill Ray.

SANTA FE, NM.- Whether he was shooting as a staff photographer for LIFE or freelancing for other major publications — Smithsonian, Fortune, Newsweek — Bill Ray never shied from an assignment, however large or (seemingly) small, during the course of his long career. Global events and quiet moments; armed conflicts and avant-garde artists; the grit and menace of the early Hells Angels and the bracing glamour of the Camelot years, he covered it all.

Bill Ray was born in Shelby, Nebraska in 1936 - a few months before the great American picture magazine, Life, was launched. His interest in photography was encouraged by his mother and oldest brother, who were both artists. He started taking pictures at age 11, and when it came time to choose between small town security and striking out for the big time, he took the road out of town at age 16. He photographed for the Lincoln newspaper, The Journal Star, while in college, and then for the United Press in Chicago and the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. In 1957, while attending a University of Missouri workshop, he was offered and accepted a job on the National Geographic staff. While arranging to move to Washington DC, he was recruited for the Life magazine Chicago bureau. He changed his plans and moved to New York and began freelancing for Life magazine. His first pictures appeared in Life magazine in 1958, and he became a staff photographer in 1964. During this time he covered a group of disgruntled Detroit families who drove to Alaska to homestead, known as the 59ers, the national visit of Nikita Kruschev, Elvis Presley leaving for Germany, Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy, and countless celebrities of the times.

In 1964 he joined the Life magazine staff working out of the Beverly Hills bureau. Here he covered top movie stars, including Natalie Wood and Ingrid Bergman, as well as the Alaska earthquake, the richest man in Japan, and the Vietnam War, with many cover stories. From the Paris bureaus in 1968 to 1971, he covered everything from Paris fashion to Jackie Kennedy’s wedding to Aristotle Onassis, travel in Turkey, and wildlife in Ethiopia. After Life ceased weekly publication in 1972, Ray photographed many patent models for a book The Art of Invention; and his photographs appeared in numerous major publications, including Smithsonian Magazine, Archeology, and Fortune. Ray has also photographed 46 covers for Newsweek.

Bill is survived by his wife Marlys Ray, his wife of nearly 62 years and a partner his photography business. He was a regular on the tennis courts and an avid bird watcher. On January 8, the couple took a long walk in the park, feeding a few cardinals along the way, “and, best of all, saw the rising nearly full moon with a kiss (one of our silly rituals),” said Marlys. “It was his best day in a long time.”

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