Words Scott G.Toepfer Images Bill Ray / The LIFE Picture Collection
This year began with a moment of sadness and reflection for the photography world. One of the greats of the art form, Bill Ray, passed away in January, 2020, leaving a legacy of some of the most iconic images of the 1950s and ’60s.
As a teenager in Nebraska, Bill Ray took his photography aspirations to a local paper, and by 1957, at the age of 20, he had passed up on a staff position at National Geographic. Instead, he moved to New York to freelance for Life Magazine. Shortly thereafter, he became a staffer and worked for the monolithic publication until its closing in 1972. He continued to travel and photograph for decades.
Some of Ray’s most famous photographs are singular portrait moments of celebrities and musicians including Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Ray Charles, and JFK. However, it was his deep dive into storytelling that earned him a level of distinction above many others of the day. Ray embedded with the Hells Angels and the Detroit 59ers and was involved in covering the Watts Riots. He created stunning photo essays that continue to engage viewers looking for a different perspective of the American social construct today. His photographs of the Hells Angels in 1965 pair beautifully with a read of Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson, but at the time, the photos were rejected by the editorial staff — only to be released online 45 years later.
Bill Ray is survived by his wife of 61 years, Marlys, and their three daughters and five grandchildren.