Robert W. Kelley, 71, Won Honors As Life Magazine Photographer

Robert W. Kelley, who died yesterday, took photographs for Life magazine when the publication and its stable of talented photographers each week defined what was important in the world.

"It was the top of the heap," said Mr. Kelley's widow, Patricia. "There was no other job that could match a job at Life back then, when it really was Life."

Mr. Kelley was not among the magazine's most renowned photographers, however. The emerging photojournalism embraced by Life staff members, an endeavor combining artistic composition with news-gathering, was not quite his cup of tea.

"He would sometimes grimace at the concept of photography being a hoity-toity, pretentious field," said his son, Timothy Kelley, a writer in Washington, D.C. "He made his name at Life by not being a great artist, but by hustling his butt off, by being paid so much for space that they had to take him on staff."

Mr. Kelley, 71, died at Virginia Mason Medical Center after a long bout with cancer. Services were scheduled for 4 p.m. tomorrow at Beck's Funeral Home in Edmonds.

Mr. Kelley was born Feb. 3, 1920, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. His family moved to Seattle's Maple Leaf neighborhood when he was an infant.

Mr. Kelley's interest in photography took root when he was 14 years old. Baby-sitting one day, he found the family had a camera and took it apart. He was hooked.

He was still a student at Roosevelt High School when he began working for the New York Times/Wide World picture service.

In 1938, at age 18, Mr. Kelley was hired by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He worked there until 1945, when he was drafted. He served in the Signal Corps.

He returned to Seattle after the war and worked at The Seattle Times.

In 1947, he began working for Life and was made a staff photographer in 1952. He worked there until 1966.

He spent most of the 1950s posted at the magazine's Atlanta bureau, and was frequently assigned to the civil-rights stories of the day. His leg was broken in 1956 in Clinton, Tenn., while he was trying to escape segregationists who did not want to be memorialized in the nation's pre-eminent magazine, said his son.

"He is first and foremost a current news cameraman and is in his element in the thick of a fast-breaking new story," wrote Stanley Rayfield in the 1957 book, "Life Photographers: Their Careers and Favorite Pictures."

Like many Life photographers in the 1950s, Mr. Kelley worked on the space-race story, too.

In 1957, he was one of 40 Life photographers stationed around the globe to photograph the passing of Sputnik, the Soviet satellite. The magazine published his photograph taken from the roof of a building in Montreal.

Timothy Kelley wasn't sure whether his father had any favorite photographs, but he had favorite anecdotes.

One time, Mr. Kelley used to say, he was perched on a telephone pole covering President Harry Truman during his whistle-stop campaign of 1948 when the train began to pull from the station.

As Mr. Kelley shimmied down the pole and began picking his way through the crowd, the president cheered and yelled encouragement to him by name. Mr. Kelley made the train.

The National Press Photographers Association in 1956 honored him for a Life photo depicting a flood victim in Tampico, Mexico.

The frame shows a Mexican man about to catch a bag of food dropped from a helicopter, in which Mr. Kelley was riding. The flood tide is seen moving in from the side.

One of Mr. Kelley's most reproduced images is of the 1963 civil-rights march in Washington, D.C. He took the picture, which is published in Life's 1991 desktop calendar, from atop the Lincoln Memorial.

Besides photography, Mr. Kelley enjoyed fishing; even that hobby he parlayed into an assignment of sorts. He co-authored and provided photographs for the book "Anatomy of a Fisherman." He worked on the project with writer Robert Traver (pseudonym of John Voelker, a Michigan judge), who had written "Anatomy of a Murder."

Mr. Kelley returned to the Northwest in 1966 and took free-lance assignments until he retired several years ago. He and his wife made their home in Edmonds.

Besides his wife and his son, Mr. Kelley is survived by a son, Peter of Pocatello, Idaho; a daughter, Megan Kelley, of Redmond; two stepdaughters, Katherine Staub, of Napereville, Ill., and Patricia Lemon, of Bellingham; and eight grandchildren.

Donations are suggested to the Virginia Mason Cancer Center Fund or the N. Peter Canlis Cancer Unit at Virgina Mason Medical Center.