Born: February, 1936;

Died: January 9, 2020.

BILL Ray, who has died aged 84, was an American photographer whose work for the pioneering photo-magazine Life saw him commit some of the most significant figures of the late 20th century to film.

Among his subjects were Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol and John F. and Jackie Kennedy, although if his legacy were to rest on one specific job, it would be the few moments in May 1962 when he caught Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to President Kennedy before a Madison Square Garden audience.

The occasion was New York’s Birthday Salute to President Kennedy, and while a host of artists including Peggy Lee, Maria Callas and Henry Fonda performed, Ray decided to break with the pack of photographers and move around the huge venue.

He had settled on an overhead gantry when Monroe appeared wearing a sheer, flesh-coloured dress which she had literally been stitched into, and proceeded to sing to Kennedy with an intimacy which belied the fact there were 15,000 people present.

“There was no sound. No sound at all,” Ray told Time magazine in 2014, of the audience’s reaction. “It was like we were in outer space.”

Between his hire by Life in 1957 and 1972, when it ended its weekly run, Ray’s work took him to every corner of American life, documenting politicians, celebrities, wars and cultural phenomena, through news reporting, photo essays and personal photographic profiles.

He recorded Elvis’ departure by boat from Brooklyn to serve in the US Army in Germany, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to America, and pop artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

His book, My Life in Photography, revisits photo-essays on subjects including the Hell’s Angels, the role of the US Navy in the Vietnam War, Ronald Reagan during his candidacy for governor of California, the wedding of Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis, and the 1968 Prague Spring.

His portfolio featured a diverse range of figures including Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, the Beatles, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Alfred Hitchcock, Princess Margaret, Joan Didion, Bob Dylan, Brigitte Bardot, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, and Jimmy Hoffa.

Through his time with Life, Ray was based between its New York, California and Paris bureaux. When the magazine published its last weekly issue in 1972, he continued to work on magazines including Smithsonian, Archaeology, and Fortune, specialising in corporate profiles of Fortune 500 figures, as well as lush international travel pieces and still-life historic artefacts. He also shot no fewer than 46 covers for Newsweek.

Bill Ray was born in February 1936 in the small rural town of Shelby, Nebraska, to George Webster Ray and Waunita Williams. His father was a high school sportsman, a First World War veteran and the owner of the local lumber yard, while his mother was an enthusiastic artist who longed to travel the world; one loved small-town life, the other did not. In his book, Ray described his childhood as “a perfect Hallmark version of Tom Sawyer, with dogs, horses and a swell Schwinn bike.”

Yet upon his graduation from the University of Nebraska, he decided not to join the family business but to follow his dream as a photographer, with encouragement from his mother. His first published photograph was seen in the Omaha World Herald in January 1952, and showed a group of townspeople (including his father) welcoming the last passenger train to pass through Shelby.

At 17, Ray’s enthusiasm won him a photography job on the city of Lincoln’s Journal-Star newspaper, and on his first day was sent to cover a fatal car crash, which he did with enough sleeves-up enthusiasm to be kept on.

Lincoln news counted as local news, but Ray’s youthful reportage soon kicked off his career-long portfolio of historic figures, as President Eisenhower and Vice-President Nixon were both photographed visiting Nebraska. Ray later worked in Chicago and Minneapolis, until he was offered a job in Washington DC by National Geographic.

He accepted, yet the New York-based Life magazine – Ray’s inspiration, and home to his personal heroes including Alfred Eisenstaedt – also offered him a job, so he turned down National Geographic and followed his heart.

In 1956, Ray met his future wife Marlys by chance on a park bench in Minneapolis, and she became not just his lifelong partner and confidante, but also his photographic assistant and later representative, setting up much of his post-Life work.

The couple, who celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last summer, had three daughters and five grandchildren.