In two decades of snapping the nation’s capital, photographer Milton Williams has witnessed more history-making events than Forrest Gump. When a mustachioed Mayor Marion Barry and his then-wife Effie presented the key to the city to Pope John Paul II in 1979, Williams deftly captured the sanctimonious moment. When tennis legend Arthur Ashe literally held court in the middle of a crowded street, Williams chronicled each serve, volley, and smash on film. And when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger approached legendary pugilists Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey at the World Boxing Association’s 55th annual convention, Williams framed the unusual trio in his lens.
“You look for the unseen, keeping your eyes open and trying to anticipate,” says Williams, who spent 1976-’81 doing camerawork for the Afro-American and now operates a photography studio in Silver Spring. “You have to stay ready for the shot and not get caught up with hero-worshiping.”
Williams began taking pictures in 1966 while stationed at the Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; his mother had sent him a no-frills camera and demanded snapshots of his surroundings. A few years later, out of the service and looking for work, Williams began free-lancing. Now, in a softcover titled Moments in Time 1973-1993 (Winston-Derek Publishers), Williams collects more than 150 of his black-and-white and color images. He has often photographed VIPs, from entertainers (Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald) to politicos (U.S. presidents, Anwar Sadat, Queen Elizabeth II) to African-American leaders (Angela Davis, Rosa Parks, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall). But his celebratory and celebrity shots are balanced by scenes of the District’s bleak side: a close-up of James Earl Ray pleading his innocence, an eerie image of MPD officers crying over the casket of a slain colleague, a photo of a sleeping homeless man holding tight to an empty change tin. “I was always focused on my job,” Williams says, missing his own pun. “I was always looking for impact photos.CP