Tuned into images of Bermuda history
Over a 40-year career in photography, Gene Ray shot the movers and shakers of the world.
He remembers boxer Muhammad Ali as “cool and calm” and television star Ed Sullivan as “nice”.
But his beginnings were humble.
He grew up on Hermitage Road, Devonshire, the ninth of 11 children; his parents did not have much money.
“My father, Antonio Ray, was just a working man,” the 84-year-old said.
“He was a caretaker at the Isolation Hospital in Devonshire. He also worked for the prisons in the 1940s, but he never made much money.
“My mother, Filomena, worked her fingers to the bone taking care of us all. We went to school from the age of 7 to 13, and didn’t get more education than you could put on a postage stamp.”
He left school and became a messenger boy for the Bermuda News Bureau; after three months, he moved into the darkroom as an assistant.
“I hadn’t had the slightest interest in photography before that,” Mr Ray said.
Despite that, he fell in love with cameras and picture taking. At 19, he got his driver’s licence and was let loose on the world with a Rolleiflex.
“We used to do a lot of personality pictures for home town newspapers,” Mr Ray said.
“We’d go all over Bermuda shooting at small guesthouses like The Ledgelets, Newstead, and Lantana.”
The News Bureau would give copies of the photos to the tourists and also send them to their local paper.
It was a way to heighten interest in a Bermuda vacation.
“It went from there,” he said. “As I gained experience, they sent me out on other assignments. I was still in the darkroom for [Dwight] Eisenhower’s visit in 1953, but when Eisenhower came back in 1957 I was a full-time photographer.”
The American president met British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan here that March in hopes of rebuilding a relationship shaken by the 1956 Suez Crisis.
“There’s a big picture I took of Eisenhower, Macmillan and the two aides, up at the Mid Ocean Club,” Mr Ray said. “We catered to the foreign outlets, AP and UPI.”
In 1959, he left the News Bureau and spent a year as photographer with The Royal Gazette. He found the job too hectic.
“I was like a blue-tailed fly,” he said.
Next, he went to the Bermudiana Hotel, but did not like it there, either.
“I didn’t have the nerve to go up to people and ask them [if I could] shoot a picture to sell them a print,” he said.
He was happy to return to the News Bureau when a position opened up again there, a few years later.
As part of his job he was often asked to photograph the governor and his guests.
In March 1973, he shot a picture of Sir Richard Sharples and a visiting Danish sea captain. Eight hours later, the Governor, his aide-de-camp Hugh Sayers, and the Sharples’s dog, Horsa, were shot dead.
“I still think of that,” he said.
“The funny thing is I was going to take a photo of them on the very steps where the shootings happened, but there were no clouds in the sky and the sun was coming right through my camera. In the end I took the photo on the upper level.”
Another shot that stood out was of the survivors from The Marques, a tall ship that sank hours after leaving Bermuda in 1984.
The vessel was hit by a rogue wave during a squall, filled with water and sank rapidly.
Out of the 28 people on board, 19 died including the ship’s skipper, Stuart Finlay, his wife and baby.
“I went out to photograph the nine survivors,” Mr Ray said, explaining how they had been on watch duty on deck, when the wave struck.
“They were mostly young boys in their late teens and early 20s. It’s hard to explain how they felt. They were very, very upset, but also so happy that they survived. It happened when most of them were asleep.”
In 1994, he retired.
“It wasn’t hard,” he said. “I had been working from the age of 13, non-stop, night and day.
“I was tired of taking orders, do this and do that. I said I’m not going to be rich anyhow, so why should I drop dead on the job?”
Today, he can no longer take photographs due to macular degeneration, an eye disorder which has left him with only peripheral vision.
“I miss a lot of it at times,” he said. Now, he devotes himself to his other lifelong passion, the guitar.
“My dad used to play,” he said. “From the time I was 8 or 9, he’d take me all around the neighbourhood playing. I just loved it.
“That is my life, music. It is like a disease, it gets in you, and you can’t get away from it.”
He plays strictly by ear. “I learn fairly quickly unless it is a complicated thing,” he said.
In his twenties, he often played in a hotel or theatre until 1 or 2am, then went to work the next morning.
“It was a strain at times,” he said. “But when you are young you can do that. My mother would help to get me up. I really loved the music part, but it was so fickle.”
He lost his regular spot playing country music at the Bermudiana Hotel when rock and roll became popular in the 1960s, but he continued to play around the island with his nephew, Butch Ray, for years.
One of his proudest moments was receiving the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour for his music and photography in 1996.
“Now I don’t do too much,” he said. “I just take one day at a time. I am pretty relaxed.”
He and his wife, Candy, celebrate their 41st anniversary on April 29.
Mr Ray has a son, Phillip, and two grandchildren.
• Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Tuesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or email@example.com with their full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them