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.
“Life was an enterprise built around photographers, and he was integral to how it was conceived and functioned,” said Katharine A. Bussard, who with Kristen Gresh edited “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography,” to be published next month.
He was at the Brooklyn Army Terminal when Pvt. Elvis Presley blew kisses to fans before shipping out to West Germany in 1958; in a rock garden and other locations with Konosuke Matsushita, the industrialist who founded Panasonic, for a special issue of Life about Japan in 1964, and on the Greek island of Skorpios when Jacqueline Kennedy married the billionaire shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in 1968.
It had rained heavily on the day of the Onassis wedding, he was quoted as saying in “Life Photographers: What They Saw” (1998), by John Loengard. “The strobe, which was drenched at this point, fired about three times and then tried to electrocute me,” he said. “Then Onassis jumps on a golf cart and tries to run over me and whoever else was there.”
For President Kennedy’s 45th-birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1962, Mr. Ray searched for a better angle than the cordoned-off area for photographers in front of the stage. He climbed atop a support beam, which afforded him a unique view of Monroe.
Mr. Ray shot a picture of her from above and behind, her face unseen. Her skintight, flesh-colored Jean Louis dress shimmered in the bright spotlight as she sang “Happy birthday, Mr. President.”
But Life did not use the picture for the issue that followed the party. It did not appear for more than two decades, when it was published in one of the special issues of Life that have come out periodically since the magazine ended its weekly run in 1972. Still, it became something of an annuity for Mr. Ray.
“I get more requests for that print than any other,” Mr. Ray told the website of Getty Images, which sells some of his work.
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.