Mr. Davis began his career at Jet and Ebony magazines and joined The Post in 1961, becoming, The Post reported years later, “the first black photographer hired by a major metropolitan newspaper.”
At the time, the newsroom was a scrappy place where assignments were doled out to whomever was available and ready to go. As an experienced photographer and a Washington native connected to the community, Mr. Davis helped shape the paper’s visual coverage of social unrest surrounding the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
At one demonstration in 1965, Mr. Davis stood behind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and photographed the crowd of protesters as King saw them from the stage, their eyes fixed on him and their expressions as solemn and determined as his. When King was gunned down less than three years later, Mr. Davis helped cover the riots that broke out in Washington.
“It was hard to snap the shutter,” Matt Lewis, a former assistant managing editor of The Post’s photo desk who also covered the events, said in an interview. “But I did it . . . even though the situation was painful, and it hurt tremendously. . . . That was my job, and more specifically, I was a black photographer. I had to do my job.
“I know without a doubt it was painful for him,” Lewis added, referring to Mr. Davis. “You have to realize what we had already come through.”
Mr. Davis photographed Washington figures including a combative President Richard M. Nixon before the press corps and Katharine Graham, The Post’s publisher and company president, during the newspaper's legal battle over the printing of the Pentagon Papers. He documented murder scenes as well as more tranquil sites around the city.
Mr. Davis was a sports photographer, too, and during at least one Army-Navy game, he raced back to the newsroom at halftime to prepare color photos for the next day’s paper. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell once analyzed an image Mr. Davis captured during an improbable and exciting play in a Washington Senators game against the New York Yankees:
“There in the front rows are a half-dozen children who fairly represent the span of ages from 6 to 16,” Boswell wrote. “In their hands, they have the usual trinkets and appendages — a boy with a scorecard and silly hat, a girl with binoculars and sports section. However, on their faces they have — taken as a group — what could be called a sense of riveted wonder. At that moment, they are being offered a lifetime gift: baseball.”
Ellsworth Joseph Davis was born Jan. 11, 1927. He graduated in 1945 from the segregated Armstrong High School, an institution he credited with preparing him for his future success.