“When a LIFE magazine photographer came to a small town in America, the headline might be ‘Missouri Floods-100,000 Homeless; LIFE Photographer Eisenstaedt in Town,'” said Bill Ray (born 1936), who took up the camera to escape his tiny Nebraska hometown. He always wanted to be closer to the action. He turned down a job at National Geographic to be a freelancer in New York City covering people. When LIFE sent him to Vietnam, he would goad pilots to fly him lower. “Damn it, I didn’t come here to photograph stars,” he once yelled at a pilot, who grinned and took him down. When LIFE planned “One Day in the Life of America” in 1974, Ray was set to shoot pictures in a missile silo. “My mother died, and her funeral was on that day. So that was my assignment.” He photographed her funeral for LIFE. Ray said his mom would have liked it that way.
Ray spent three and a half months in Japan in 1964 for a LIFE special issue. “I did pictures of Konosuke Matsushita, the Henry Ford of Japan. I had him walking through his garden—a beautiful rock garden—and if I wanted him to go back and do it again, he did it. I don’t know if I asked him in English or what. I guess I waved at him or something. A lot of gardeners would come out and rake all the stones just in the right place, and he’d walk again.”
—Adapted from The Great LIFE Photographers