Bill Jones, who, as one of the first black photographers working the celebrity beat in Hollywood, brought attention to Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and other black stars early in their careers, died on June 25 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.
The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, his granddaughter Latoya Jones said.
Mr. Jones first picked up a camera while serving as a sergeant in the Air Force and, after moving to Los Angeles in 1972, began photographing movie stars and entertainers. It was not easy breaking into the business.
“As a black man, it was very difficult at the time when I started,” he told The Mansfield News Journal of Ohio in 2006. “It was tough to get a space in what we call ‘the line,’ meaning the line of photographers taking shots of the celebrities.”
A Midwesterner, he relied on an open, friendly manner, a polite approach and a shrewd strategy. He trained his lens on black actors and musicians whom the white media often ignored, and soon became a fixture in Ebony and its sister publication Jet; the magazine Sister 2 Sister; Right On, a magazine for black teenagers; and newspapers like L.A. Watts Times, The Wave and L.A. Focus.
“It took me about three years before I could talk to all the people I needed to and get them to come to me instead of going to the line,” he told The News Journal. “Being the only black photographer, other black actors and actresses would come to me and let me take whatever pictures I wanted.”
Over the years his subjects included Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Whitney Houston, Eddie Murphy, Magic Johnson and Sidney Poitier. “My wife didn’t like it that I was gone every night,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2013. “But she was impressed by the people I photographed.”
Mr. Jones photographed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited Los Angeles in 1964, and in 1990 he traveled to South Africa, paying his own way, to photograph Nelson Mandela as he was released from prison. At the 2002 Academy Awards, he photographed Ms. Berry and Mr. Washington, winners of the best actress and best actor Oscars, holding their gold statuettes aloft. It was one of his favorite images.
“For many years, he was one of few African-American photographers on the red carpet and had experienced unfair treatment, but he didn’t let biased treatment deter him,” Ian Foxx, a Los Angeles photographer and a close friend, told The Los Angeles Sentinel last week. “He treated his subjects honorably and they responded greatly, seeking him out at events, and posed for him voluntarily.”
William Benjamin Jones was born on Oct. 4, 1934, in Mansfield, Ohio. He was given up for adoption by his birth parents and reared by Willy and Bertha Jones. After graduating from Mansfield Senior High School in 1954, he enrolled in Howard University in Washington, but he left during his freshman year to enlist in the Air Force.
He stayed for the next two decades, attaining the rank of sergeant. He was trained as an accountant but became fascinated by photography.
While stationed on Okinawa, he staged fashion shows on the base and took runway photographs. Later, when he was stationed in England, he took courses at the London School of Photography.
He took his first celebrity photo when Muhammad Ali came to London in 1966 for a return match with the English heavyweight Henry Cooper.
In 1956 he married Reva Ochier. She died in 2011. He is survived by two daughters, Michelle Jones and Natalie Jones; three sisters, Ruth Foster, Betty Jordan and Dorothy Sanders; a brother, Booker Jordan; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
After leaving the Air Force, Mr. Jones moved to Los Angeles, where he earned a master’s degree in business from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1976. While making his early red-carpet forays — he started with a photograph of the comedian Redd Foxx leaving a restaurant on Venice Boulevard — he worked at the accounting firm Swinerton & Walberg.
The disc jockey and entrepreneur Hal Jackson hired Mr. Jones as the photographer for his Talented Teens International Competition.
In 1997, washing his car in front of his house in South Los Angeles, Mr. Jones was attacked by a neighbor with a baseball bat. No motive was ever determined. He lay in a coma for a month, with multiple skull fractures. Many of the celebrities he had photographed over the years raised money to help with his medical treatment.
After a long period of rehabilitation, he resumed his photographic work, using his left hand to take pictures. His most memorable images were collected in “Hollywood in Black: 40 Years of Photography by Bill Jones,” published in 2006. That year the annual Hollywood Black Film Festivalhonored him with a retrospective exhibition.
“My ultimate photo, I don’t know when it’s going to come, is to photograph all the black Academy Award winners,” Mr. Jones told The Los Angeles Times in 1997. “That’s gonna be down the road. But that’s my ultimate shot.”