Over a 47-year career as a photographer for Newsday, Alan Raia had seen — and shot — it all.
Early on, he displayed a knack for the camera, and as a professional he captured a dizzying array of images, from grisly crime scenes in New York City to the dignified visages of each U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.
Raia, an Army veteran and resident of Garden City whose tenure at Newsday included roles in Pulitzer Prize-winning projects, died in his sleep on Sunday. He was 85.
“He photographed and covered every New York City mayor from Fiorello LaGuardia to Michael Bloomberg,” said a son, Alex Raia of Bethpage. “He photographed hundreds of celebrities throughout his storied career and he covered hard news, sports, crime scenes and fashion runways. He was the classic beat reporter who covered local neighborhoods and many stories that were of special interest to Long Island residents.”
A Bronx native, Alexander Raia Jr., who went by Alan, moved to Long Island during his primary school years and settled in Westbury. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work and help his family make ends meet as the country recovered from the Second World War.
His photography skills became apparent when he took up a camera as a Boy Scout, relatives said — and they were soon enlisted to work. He entered the Army as an 18-year-old draftee in 1952 during the Korean War and was assigned to be a press-release photographer, traveling to European nations to document reconstruction efforts.
When he was honorably discharged and came back to Long Island, Raia worked for John Drennan photography studio, a service that employed photographers whose work was sold to area newspapers, said Dick Kraus, who worked for that outlet and lured Raia to Newsday once Kraus joined its ranks.
Raia also obtained a general equivalency diploma and taught photography at Nassau Community College.
“He’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, very kind and very compassionate,” Kraus said. “And he would go out of his way to help newcomers. He was an excellent photographer and had a good grasp of the art. His pictures had meaning and purpose.”
In 1961, Raia joined the staff of Newsday, beginning a venerable career documenting some of the most momentous times of Long Island’s and New York City’s recent history. He also supported people in his field by serving as a longtime trustee for the New York Press Photographers Association.
"Al stood out as a gentleman and a professional," said John Keating, Newsday assistant managing editor of photography. "He was modest and always willing to help his colleagues."
Raia photographed mob boss John Gotti and other denizens of criminal courts, and he captured inspiring world figures, including Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II, and the diplomats at the United Nations. Celebrities and sports legends such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath share space in Raia’s portfolio with Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Beatles.
"I was impressed with the way he quietly went about the business of producing great photographs for Newsday," Keating said.
In November 1966, Raia tied the knot with his childhood sweetheart, the former Judith Laurenson, a Newsday employee to whom he was married for 53 years. The couple had six children.
Raia’s family life included weeklong vacations in Southampton. He had a weakness for stylish antique cars, taking pride especially in a 1955 Ford Thunderbird that he exchanged for a station wagon when it got hit on a Manhattan street one day.
“His true talent was an innate ability to deal with people from every walk of life and humbly capture perfect photos,” Alex Raia said. “He taught us all about tolerance and humility. Long Island saw the world through his eyes and his lens.”
Besides his wife and son, Alan Raia is survived by daughters Allison Raia Miller of Merrick, Jacqueline Raia Straus of Garden City and Nancy Raia Buechler of Bellerose; and two other sons, Christopher of Darien, Connecticut, and Jonathan of Mineola.
He will be buried with military honors during a private graveside ceremony in Westbury.