The Extraordinary Life of Billy Ray – Part 1

Originally we had planned to showcase Billy Ray in our ongoing Author Spotlight series, but after talking to him we realized in order to truly showcase the life of Billy Ray we would need to not only deviate from our normal profile but break it into two parts.

The life of Billy Ray would be the dream of any aspiring photographer. Raised with what he called an “idyllic childhood” in Shelby, Nebraska, he was free to pursue his own interests. He grew up reading LIFE magazine and a glimpse of not only the outside world, but also LIFE Magazine’s famous photographers traveling to faraway places. On a trip to Omaha, he found a Kodak developing kit in a shop window and thought, “Holy cow, I can develop my own photos.” He built a darkroom and pursued photography with a passion. Images of Fred Astaire dancing in Central Park made him realize living in New York, working for LIFE magazine, and traveling the world was his future.

Going through life with the “You can do it!” attitude he inherited from his mother, Billy walked into the Lincoln Journal Star his senior year of high school and became their photographer the day after he graduated. He quickly made the front page with a picture of President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon and Joe McCarthy during their visit to Nebraska. From there, it was a few years at UPI in Chicago, and a stint at the Minneapolis Star & Tribune before both National Geographic and LIFE approached him with job offers. He drove to New York and started for LIFE.

While on those dream assignments, life was full of travels, adventures and many many rolls of film. Billy photographed countless celebrities, politicians, and other people of note, including the Beatles, Elvis, Natalie Wood and Woody Allen. To this day, there are still a few people he’d have liked to capture: specifically, President Barack Obama, George Clooney and Steve Jobs.


Billy has been in the business for a long time and has seen a lot of change with the arrival of digital cameras. In the early days, he learned basic photography using a view camera, which worked in 4×5, 5×7 and 8×10. View cameras show how cameras work, helping you develop one sheet at a time, and with Ansel Adams’ law of exposing, using the shadows and developing for the highlights. Every candid show he did for LIFE was on 35mm. Leicas were the camera of choice for wide angle and Nikons for telephotos. When it came to covers and fashion 35mm and 2 ¼ shared the stage.

“I misjudged the digital revolution, “ he freely admits. “I thought my film expertise would give me a niche. Then I realized that no one in their right mind would pay for film processing when they didn’t have to.” He was 69 years old, faced with a dramatically changing industry and realized he had to learn or starve. He found a very brave teacher who worked with him and helped set up his Apple computer with Photoshop and Lightroom. A trip to B&H, a number of digital camera trials, and a hatred for the Nikon Ds resulted in a Canon 5D and a tough, uphill battle.

As things began to fall in place, Billy realized digital photography was easy, probably too easy. He realized forgetting how to follow focus, relying on digital exposure and the ability to shoot everything raw at any exposure allowed the masses to become pros. Gone were the days when you knew ½ stop on Kodachrome was life or death, the need for a light meter and carting around filters and the seven cases of 1600W and 2400W strobes.


Billy saw a dramatic shift in his business. He was no longer needed for corporate annual reports, the high-paying jobs that he depended on because anyone with a computer could create a layout in-house. Additionally, anyone who reached out wanted a dramatic price reduction because the market was saturated. The saving grace came in decoration. The trend of collection and decorating with B&W photos made a resurgence and Billy had lots of terrific photos of famous people. The downside of the trend was in the actual printing. Labs had gone out of business and the great printers had passed away or retired. New printers were charging outrageous prices for minimal work compared to what labs used to do before digital came on the scene. He now spends the fair amount of time going to and from a high quality lab, overseeing the print of his work, signing editions and taking them to New York galleries or shipping to his clients.

Billy Ray’s first Blurb book was My LIFE in Photography and it remains his favorite. Billy and his wife are adding pictures all the time, which make it a dynamic, living sort of project. It is true a collection of his work from beginning to end. The last two additions were recent portraits of very prominent Rectors who were retiring. The prints were to hang in the church on Park Ave. and had to be 24” by 30” of top quality, competing with oil paintings of their predecessors. Billy’s expert printer insisted he shoot them on his old Hasselblad using Kodak negative film. The prints are stupendous and hanging in St. Bart’s.

His other Blurb books fall into two categories. The first one is a showcase of his work that he hopes inspires people to purchase prints, and the second is a collection of yearly trips Billy takes with his wife, usually to Italy. The travel books help to keep memories alive, and they both love looking things up for the captions.

If you can believe it, this is only the beginning of Billy’s story. Next time, we will take a look at his time with the infamous Hells Angels. In the meantime, take a look at all of Billy’s incredible work.

Do you remember the film-to-digital revolution? How did it change the way you worked? Share your story in the comments below!


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