Todd Williamson/FilmMagic

Hollywood In Black: What We Lost With Bill Jones

The late photographer captured a bygone era of black glamour for all time

There is more than one way to view the influence of the paparazzi on contemporary culture. Fellini coined the term for street photographers in the 1960 film La Dolce Vita after the obnoxious buzz of a mosquito — and yet, many harassed celebrities understand that there can be a virtue in notoriety. A star is a stronger star if even her banal behaviors are subjects to preserve, if a photographer chooses to capture her over another. The photography of Bill Jones, who died last month at the age of 81, suffused black celebrity with the nobility it sought.

Jones chose to photograph the black Hollywood that the official class of white paparazzi elected to not see. He began taking pictures of celebrities in the 1960s; his first, according to his New York Times obituary, was Muhammad Ali, in 1966. “It was tough to get a space in what we call ‘the line,’ meaning the line of photographers taking shots of the celebrities,” Jones told the Mansfield News Journal in 2006. Hollywood and the notion of high society it delicately protects is structured like a hierarchy, and so it dramatizes the racism of pedestrian life. But Jones turned segregation into opportunity. Jones quietly democratized the concept of glamour by putting the black and beautiful in the limelight. His over-50-year practice of taking photos of black celebrities on red carpets and for black magazines was more than a legendary photography career, which would have been enough.

Jones was self-taught. Born in Ohio in 1934, he entered the Air Force following high school, as strong, able-bodied men did. But he was keen on finer things: While stationed, Jones would put on cobbled-together fashion shows. He also took classes at the London School of Photography. Jones’s emphasis on classical photography method translated to his demeanor with his subjects. He was full of grace, uninterested in salacious angles or intrusive framing, though he liked to show them looking amused. Such figures as Sidney Poitier, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye, and one of Jones’s favorites, Aretha Franklin, learned to come to him on red carpets. In the 1980s, he photographed the likes of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. And into his own seventies, Jones photographed the younger black Hollywood generation that counts Rihanna and Nicki Minaj as members. “He treated his subjects honorably and they responded greatly, seeking him out at events, and posed for him voluntarily,” according to his friend and fellow black photographer Ian Foxx. Jones would mail his pictures to his subjects, a vestige of black intimacy.

The Black Glitterati — Zora Neale Hurston cheekily called it the “Niggerati” in the 1920s — has origins in the complicated place where freedom-fighting and prestige meet. In photos, Jones gave coherence to that ambiguity. His 1964 photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. shows how the man towered in luxuriously pressed suits; his 1990 photograph of Nelson Mandela exiting prison rendered him a restored dignitary. Jones had an idea of fame that stretched past Hollywood, that encompassed political stardom. When it opens in September of this year, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture will exhibit 79 of Jones’s images.

In his 2015 essay, “A True Picture of Black Skin,” critic and photographer Teju Cole considers the trouble of translating dark skin in photos. The instruments manufactured in the early to mid–20th century were “generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensitivity to brown, red or yellow skin tones.” These were the tools Jones had to work with. Of black photographers, Cole says: “An artist tries to elicit from unfriendly tools the best they can.” Jones combatted the “unfriendliness” of tools and Hollywood by proudly serving his bias. He never paid lip service to the perception that the camera was blind, just as Hollywood was never race-blind, and instead deliberately trained his camera on black people. The title of Hollywood in Black, a 2006 book collecting Jones’s photographs of his subjects, makes that plain.

Bill Jones died on June 25, of dementia. The New York Times’s obituary was not published until July 12. The news took longer than it should have to reach mainstream consciousness. I, too, was embarrassed by how long I had gone without knowing. Two of the biggest magazines that featured Jones’s photography, Ebony and Jet, have recently been sold; the entire Ebony-Jet photo archive is now up for sale. These transactions feel indicative of an era of black glamour bygone, atomized by the perpetually coming death of print and the ongoing trend toward desegregated media. Bill Jones, however, always worked against trend. Through him, black Hollywood has an everlasting document.