Legendary photographer Dr. William Benjamin “Bill” Jones, who captured Hollywood’s most iconic and luminous African American celebrities for decades, was memorialized on July 14, 2016 at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.
Jones, 83, passed away while in hospice care on June 25, 2016 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease.
Numerous tributes poured in for the beloved photographer, whose career spanned 50 decades. President Barack Obama sent a proclamation in honor of Jones’ stellar legacy, as did Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, state Senator Holly Mitchell, councilmembers Mike Gipson and Curren Price, Jr. and City Council President Herb Wesson.
Born Oct. 4, 1934 in Mansfield, Ohio, Jones first picked up a camera while serving as a sergeant in the U. S. Air Force. He became interested in photography while stationed in England, where he studied at the London School of Photography. He snapped his first celebrity photo of Cassius Clay, (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali) in 1966 when Clay traveled to London for a return match with heavyweight Henry Cooper. After retiring, Jones moved to Los Angeles in 1972. He attended California State University Los Angeles and received a master’s degree in business, but his real goal was to photograph celebrities.
Jones was long recognized as a pioneer who helped to break barriers for black photographers in Hollywood. In the competitive world of celebrity photography, Jones frequently had to jostle other paparazzi to secure a spot on the red carpet, but his open, friendly manner and Midwestern charm soon had many black celebrities posing for his lens such as Denzel Washington and Halle Berry.
“Being the only black photographer, other black actors and actresses would come to me and let me take whatever pictures I wanted,” Jones is quoted as saying.
During his illustrious career, Jones’ captivating photographs were regularly splashed across the pages of Ebony and Jet magazines as well as publications such as Right On, Sister 2 Sister, the L.A. Watts Times, The Wave and L. A. Focus and the Los Angeles Sentinel.
His pictures of countless celebrities included Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey, New Edition, James Brown, Whitney Houston, Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson and Sidney Poitier as well as historic photos of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Jones’ career was momentarily cut short in 1997 when a neighbor brutally attacked him with a baseball bat, leaving him in a coma for a month. Several concerned celebrities whom he had photographed over the years rallied to pay his hospital bills. Despite the setback, Jones remained undeterred and returned to the red carpet.
Dozens of family, friends and colleagues gathered at Holman to pay their respects in memory of the iconic photographer, whose ashes, mingled with the remains of his wife, Reva Ochier, who passed away in 2011, were displayed in a blue urn on the church podium.
Recognized by his colleagues as a “kind and giving” man, Jones generously mentored many African-American photographers during their careers.
“Before digital, before Facebook and Twitter, there was Bill Jones,” said Malcolm Ali, a close friend who was mentored by Jones. “He impressed me with his love of God, family and photography.”
Christine Silva, another mentee, said, “Jones was kind and patient with me. He was a wonderful father, husband, and photographer. He made an invaluable contribution through his magnificent photography and he leaves us with a historic and priceless legacy.”
April Sutton, who was the first entertainment reporter at Black Entertainment Television (BET), remembered Jones’ giving nature and generous spirit.
“I am here to celebrate this man who is so special to me,” said Sutton. “As the first black network, we had a difficult time obtaining press credentials to obtain interviews. It was an uphill battle. Bill asked me, ‘Who are you working for?’ I said BET. The next week, he called and gave me the telephone numbers of many Hollywood managers and publicists, which is unheard of. Without him, we would have never been able to secure celebrity interviews and press credentials for the Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, and other award shows.”
Sutton recalled the evening when Jones deftly snapped the ionic photo of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry after they both captured Oscars for “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” at the 2002 Academy Awards. ”We talked about that historic, magical moment for many weeks,” Sutton said. She also recalled when she and Jones covered the 1984 Grammy Music Awards at the Shrine auditorium when “The King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, posed back stage holding eight Grammys. “Bill got the shot. That night was amazing,” she recalled.
“Bill was an icon and a complete professional,” added Sutton. “He had such grace and class. I’m standing to .pay tribute to one of the greatest Hollywood photo-journalists of all time. I want to thank him for all he has done.”
Jones’ pastor, the Rev. Paul Hill of Grace United Methodist Church who delivered the invocation, pointed out that Jones was a long-time faithful member of the sanctuary.
“Bill faithfully lived his life and took to heart God’s promises,” said Hill. “He no longer has pain, he has joy. Even though we come here with a heavy heart, be comforted that Bill is in the new Jerusalem.”
Jones’ 22 years in the Air Force were honored when members of the U. S. Air Force Base Honor Guard delivered the folding and presentation of the American flag to Jones’ daughter, Michelle Jones. Members of the U. S. Air Force delivered a 21-gun salute and two trumpeters delivered a stirring rendition of “Taps.”
Music once again filled the sanctuary as vocalist Jerry Bell sang a stirring rendition of “Everything Must Change,” followed by Joe Holt who sang “For All We Know.” Recording artist Howard Hewitt delivered a poignant rendition of “Amen.”
Ian Foxx, another close friend and mentee of Jones who worked with him at the L. A. Watts Times for over a decade, remembers fondly venturing out on the red carpet with Jones and shooting celebrities at various events. “What I admired most about Bill was that he was very focused and very patient when it came to getting shots of the celebrities,” Foxx recalls. “He had a great rapport with the artists. It was more than just pointing a camera—he had a way of making the celebrities feel comfortable.”
Jones’ sister-in-law Katherine Gould humorously recalled that Jones, whom she called “WB,” was a very loving and kind man, but that he could also be “stubborn.” “I liked to debate with WB—but he always won the debate,” she recalled fondly.
Film producer and publicist Peter Allman recalled that Jones took him under his wing after he arrived to Los Angeles from Las Vegas. “Bill introduced me to the world of celebrity,” Allman recalled. “He was a very humble and kind man and I will miss him.”
Granddaughter LaToya Jones, who was raised by Jones, recalls, “We grew up watching our grandfather work the red carpet. We helped to develop his pictures and he taught my little brother Marquis Jones how to use a camera. He always made sure that his business affairs were in order and I admired how he turned his passion for photography into a business,” said LaToya, who plans to carry on her grandfather’s legacy as a celebrity photographer.
Jones passed away peacefully while holding his first grandchild’s hand. His remains were placed in the wall of the Veteran’s Memorial in Riverside, California on July 18, 2016.
He leaves behind his daughters Michelle and Natalie Jones and seven grandchildren, including LaToya and Marquis Jones, Tandika and Cherelle Hayes, Antoine and Andre Leach, Kiana Jones as well as seven great grandchildren with two on the way.
He is survived by his siblings Ruth Foster, Booker Jordan and Betty Jordan of Gary, Indiana as well as a host of nieces and nephews, friends and colleagues.