Photographer / Author

Billy H. Easley, October 10, 1925 – January 31, 2014

Nashville, Tennessee in the early 1950s was not the kind of place where a young white boy was likely to have a black friend, but I didn’t know that at the time and Billy Easley, ten-and-a-half years my senior, worked in my father’s business and we shared common interests. We began a friendship that lasted long after I moved away from our hometown, until Billy died on January 31.

When Billy and I met. He was a “stock boy,” (not a racial pejorative) which in my father’s men’s hat business, meant that he filled orders from the warehouse and delivered them to the shipping department for delivery to the customers. When I worked there in the summers, I was a stock boy, too. Racial prejudice wasn’t in my father’s vocabulary and Billy could have worked in the showroom, waited on customers and done a range of other jobs had community attitudes been different. But they were then what they were throughout the South. Schools, restaurants and hotels were segregated; blacks rode in the back of busses, sat in a separate waiting room at the train station, used separate drinking fountains in parks and lived in their own part of town. Billy and I couldn’t go to lunch together, but we brown bagged it and ate in “the store.” In the summer, we sometimes climbed onto the roof of the four-story building and picnicked.

But, my father had given Billy the keys to the building, and on January 29, 1951, when the worst ice storm in Nashville’s history completely paralyzed transportation and caused power outages throughout the city, Billy walked to work, opened the building, filled orders and kept the boiler running. My father never forgot that extraordinary effort.

Our common interest in photography cemented our friendship. Billy had learned about photography in the military during World War II and studied at the Nashville School of Photography. Even while working full time for my father, Billy opened his own photography studio where he made portraits during the evenings and on weekends. I had learned to develop film and make crude prints at a summer camp when I was still in elementary school, and when I bought my first “serious” camera in 1952, Billy became my teacher and mentor. We set up a makeshift darkroom in an unused washroom on the third floor of the warehouse and Billy taught me to mix chemicals properly and began my real photographic education.

Billy had an incredible work ethic and a desire for knowledge that was inspiring. One day, Billy came into the company’s print shop, where I was working part-time as assistant to the manager and learning to operate the offset printing press. He sat down to read a book during his lunch break. I asked what he was reading and he showed me. It was a dictionary, and I discovered that he read it regularly to build his vocabulary. To this day, I’ve never known anyone else who read the dictionary, or used it for more than a reference.

In the late 1950s, I was in college and Billy moved on with his life and studio and began to build his own family. His big break as a photographer came shortly after that when he applied for a job as a photographer and darkroom technician with the Nashville Tennessean. He became the first African-American photographer to work for the Tennessean and, I believe, was the first black photographer to work for a major southern newspaper. The timing was absolutely right. He photographed civil rights riots in the 1960s, covered a wide range of politicians, historical events and celebrities, and achieved international and national recognition before retiring from the Tennessean in 1989.

Billy Easley was a groundbreaker, a man of diverse interests, a life-long student and observer of our evolving society, and an inspired photojournalist. He was also my friend and mentor and though I will miss him, I will always be inspired by his example.

Footnotes:

These two photographs, to some extent, demonstrate the range of Billy Easley’s documentary photography during his years with the Nashville Tennessean. Looking back over the body of his work, what I admire most is his ability to capture the action and his sense of moment. Billy’s images were not staged, nor was he ever the focus of the subject’s attention. His pictures, then, capture the natural character and expressions of his subjects and serve to interpret time, place and condition. Were he still working today, his would still be the contemporary style and would be a model for aspiring photo journalists.

Top photo: January 30, 1983: Kiss bassist Gene Simmons waves his top-knotted hair and sticks out his famous tongue, at his fans packing Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium.

Reproduced with permission from The Tennessean, Copyright © 2014

January 3, 1983: Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander tells the Capitol press corps that his Cabinet meetings during the second term of his administration will be closed to the press and public.
Alexander said he “made a commitment” during his 1978 campaign to keep his Cabinet meetings open, a commitment “which I didn’t make this time.”


Reproduced with permission from The Tennessean, Copyright © 2014

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