Bill Ray: A LIFEtime of Photographs

The Kennedys, Bill Ray, silver gelatin print, 1960.
The Kennedys, Bill Ray, silver gelatin print, 1960.

June 1 – September 9, 2012 —

LIFE photographer and Nebraska native Bill Ray traveled across the country documenting important events in American cultural history. From small town to big city, Ray photographed Presidents, movie stars, and sports legends, capturing a generation’s hopes and dreams, trials and tribulations by visually recording the life and times of mid-20th Century America.

Born and raised in Shelby, Nebraska, Bill Ray’s photo journalism career began at the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper the day after his high school graduation. As a young staff photographer, Ray snapped newsworthy images ranging from visiting presidential candidates to University cheerleaders and local dignitaries. “Let’s Talk Turkey” was a featured image on the front page of the November 20, 1954 issue and, within a few days, the photograph was picked up as a wire photo and printed in over 600 newspapers across the United States. Bill Ray continued to work for newspapers in Chicago and Minneapolis until the offer of a LIFEtime came.

An early assignment at LIFE magazine had Bill Ray covering John F. Kennedy’s return to Hyannisport, Massachusetts, following his Democratic presidential nomination. The photograph of JFK and Jackie emerging from the Kennedy family airplane was self-described as an “upper class, 1960 version of Grant Wood’s American Gothic.” Ray captured the youthful exuberance and fascination of the Kennedy campaign, inauguration, and the infamous birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. The black and white images recorded a new and exciting time in America’s history.

The Hells Angels of San Berdoo, the mother charter, was a featured LIFE story in 1965. The idea came as an effort to “clean up” the club’s reputation. A gritty photo essay assignment sent Ray on a month-long journey riding, hanging out, drinking beer, shooting pool, and taking photographs that allowed a dramatic look into the lives of the riders and those involved in the culture.

Bill Ray continued to work for LIFE magazine until the publication as a weekly magazine ceased in 1972. The end of a dream job did not stop Bill Ray. He continued to travel the globe documenting wonders around the world for other publications. The photographs of a 60-year career evoke an amazing appreciation for the talent of a man who grew up in a small Nebraska town, worked to achieve his goal, and along the way took some really amazing pictures.