A selection of Bill Ray‘s photographs for Life magazine, taken during the 1950s and ’60s – including his rear-view shot of Marilyn singing ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ at Madison Square Garden – are currently on display at the Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Now 78, Ray has been interviewed by Pasiatempo, explaining how he got his start in photography, joining Life in 1957 and following in the footsteps of his idol, Alfred Eisenstadt. Among Ray’s many famous subjects were Elvis Presley, the Kennedys, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Frank Lloyd-Wright, and Andy Warhol.
After Life ceased publication, he freelanced for Newsweek, Archaeology,Smithsonian, and Fortune, and developed a portrait specialty. “One thing I’m still good at is people,” said Ray, whose recent work includes an official portrait of “a retiring big-time minister at St. Bart’s here in New York. His predecessors had all been painted in oil, and he wanted a photograph instead.”
“‘It had been a noisy night, a very ‘rah rah rah’ kind of atmosphere,’ he told LIFE.com of Kennedy’s birthday gala. ‘Then boom, on comes this spotlight. There was no sound. No sound at all. It was like we were in outer space.” Marilyn was onstage, taking off a white fur to reveal her ‘nude’ sequinned dress underneath. “It was skin-colored, and it was skin-tight,” Ray recalled. “It was sewn on, covered with brilliant crystals. There was this long, long pause … and finally, she comes out with this unbelievably breathy, ‘Happy biiiiirthday to youuuu,’ and everybody just went into a swoon. I was praying [that I could get the shot] because I had to guess at the exposure. It was a very long lens, and I had no tripod, so I had to rest the lens itself on the railing, and tried very, very hard not to breathe.”