Back before Ray Wilson went blind, there was little he loved more than looking at visages through his viewfinder. He preferred them black and historic.
Over three decades, Wilson photographed Buffalo soldiers and Thurgood Marshall, Sidney Poitier and Rosa Parks, Ron Brown and James Brown. Civil rights leader Dorothy Height was a favorite subject, and the city’s black mayors appear frequently in Wilson’s frames.
The septuagenarian shutterbug, who bought the camera that would transform his life in 1975 on a whim, became an eyewitness to black history. He took thousands of pictures of everyday folks and famous African American figures, of minor meetings and momentous events, from the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington to the Million Man March.
On March 14, he will be honored by the Greater Washington Urban League for his photographic work, which he mostly pursued as a passion, not a profession.
“I wanted to be involved in the history,” said Wilson, 76, a retired Navy chief petty officer. “It wasn’t about the dollars and cents. I was just so enthusiastic about the things that were happening. Being able to document our people and this history was a gift and a joy. I didn’t know where it was leading when I started; I just enjoyed doing it.”
If there was a bold-faced black name in Washington during the years Wilson worked, then he likely shot them, said Kerrie Cotten Williams, archivist for the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, an Atlanta institution that recently received several hundred photos from Wilson.
“I don’t think he missed anybody,” she said. “That says something about him as a photographer and how he was able to insert himself into places to get his shots. He has a huge, national collection that’s really unique.”
Wilson, who sometimes worked for black newspapers or civic organizations but mostly made pictures for himself, was especially fond of firsts. Here’s a picture of Jesse Jackson embracing Shirley Chisholm — “our first two to run for president,” Wilson said. Here’s Douglas Wilder at his inauguration in Richmond — “our first governor.”
As fate would have it, Wilson lost his sight to glaucoma not long before the ultimate first, Barack Obama, was elected to the White House four years ago. A framed picture of the nation’s only black president now hangs near the front door of Wilson’s house.
“But it’s something my oldest son picked up for me; it’s not one of mine,” he said. If not for his total blindness? “I would have gotten that shot.”
No doubt, said Sharon Farmer, who served as chief White House photographer in the Clinton administration and has known Wilson since the 1970s, when he began pointing and clicking after retiring from the Navy.
For years, Farmer said, she kept bumping into Wilson around Washington, often wearing a tan photographer’s vest with an Old Ironsides hat perched atop his head. He’d show up at small community gatherings at somebody’s house — and also for major happenings at the White House.
“If an event was going on and Ray thought it needed covering, he didn’t wait for somebody to tell him; he just figured it out,” Farmer said. “He’s a go-getter . . . he was dedicated and has such a passion for what he did. ”
One recent morning, Wilson sat in the living room of Northeast Washington home he’s occupied for 40 years and where he and his wife raised five children. He was wearing slacks and a shirt and tie beneath a sweater, because, he said, he’s a Navy guy. “I have to be properly dressed,” he explained. Dark glasses covered his eyes. The heat was cranked high.
He was surrounded by photos that he’ll never again be able to see. They were on the walls and stuffed in envelopes, which were piled into boxes. There were thousands, too, in albums, which seemed to be everywhere: under the dining-room table, in the coat closet, on either side of the sofa.
“There are a lot more you don’t see,” said Mignon Kent Wilson, his wife of 58 years. “They’re in the basement, the first floor, the second floor, the attic.”
The sprawling collection, which a relative has been slowly digitizing, covers almost exactly 30 years; the last photos Ray Wilson remembers shooting were of Dorothy Height in 2004. When he started losing his vision, he stopped using his cameras; his world went dark for good several years ago, after a series of surgeries.
“My sight is totally gone,” he said. “But I’m not disgruntled. I fulfilled my objective. And it hasn’t taken any of my joy away. I have a machine in the consciousness of my head that just flows. I can ‘see’ a photograph and tell you who, what and where.”
Later his wife was looking through an album filled with images of African American women of note. “There’s Yolanda King,” she said of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter.
“The one with the glasses on top of her head?” he said.
Yeah, that one.
“He has a photographic memory,” said Cotten Williams, the Auburn Avenue Research Library archivist. “His ability to recall the story behind almost every one of his photos is amazing.”
Wilson donated a portion of his collection to the Atlanta library because . . . well, they asked. The library administrator knew somebody who knew of Wilson and his work, and they were the first institution to ask for his archives, he said.
“A whole lot of people aren’t aware of what I was able to obtain,” he said. “I’ve been real low-key. I was happy to give them my work.”
But, he added: “I haven’t given them everything.”
He wonders whether the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture that’s being built on the Mall might want some of his remaining work. Or perhaps some other institution.
“I’m not getting any younger,” he said. “These things ain’t worth a damn if I’m gone and my wife is gone and they just come in and throw it all away. I can’t take it with me.”