Al Clayton, Noted Southern Food Photographer, Passes Away

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Al Clayton - Photo by John Egerton
  • Al Clayton - Photo by John Egerton
Nowadays, anybody with an iPhone and an appetite can consider themselves a food photographer. I'm as guilty as anybody, styling my french fries at Burger Up, trying to bounce the sun off a menu for more appetizing lighting, shooting a chili dog from a low angle to add drama. But this week, we lost a real food photographer who made a difference when Al Clayton passed away this past Monday in Georgia.

First, please allow me to get a little personal for a minute. I discovered about five years ago that Al was my uncle when my birth mother contacted me through Family and Children's Services. I had just started working as a food writer, so the irony was not lost on me that I was related by blood to the talented photographer who worked with John Egerton on perhaps the seminal regional book on the subject, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History.

I always enjoyed speaking with John about his experiences working with Al, and I know it was tough on my uncle to miss John's funeral last winter due to his own frail condition. Like a married couple where one spouse follows the other quickly into the hereafter, Egerton and Clayton just couldn't be apart for too long, and I imagine they're talking about all of us over a plate of country ham and red-eye gravy right about now.

Clayton's career as a photographer certainly had a focus on food, but that wasn't all that his lens captured. Born in Etowah, Tenn., in 1934, he spent much of the 1950's in the Navy and learned the craft of camerawork as a medical photographer. After attending art school in Los Angeles and moving to Atlanta, he came to Nashville in 1965 to work for Illustration Design Group. It was there that he received the assignment to travel around the American South to document the plight of the malnourished and dispossessed children and adults of the Mississippi Delta, eastern Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama. Senators Robert Kennedy and Joseph Clark used these photographs in congressional hearings, and they were said to be instrumental in the passing of the Food Stamp Act.

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The photographs were collected in Still Hungry in America, a powerful book which Clayton co-authored with Robert Coles in 1969. The next year, his first collaboration with Egerton was released, A Mind to Stay Here: Profiles from the South. Al became known as a source of images that could really enlighten folks who had never visited the southern half of the country about what the conditions and people there were really about.

In their landmark 1987 Southern Food project, Egerton and Clayton wrote and illustrated the first major popular written work on the connection between Southern food, culture and history. The book was absolutely crucial in launching the academic exploration of Southern food that eventually led to the formation of the Southern Foodways Alliance. John's prose and Al's images work together to weave beautiful stories of the cooks and foods of their home region.

Clayton was not limited to just work behind the camera. He also wrote humorous books about pigs, collaborated with Rev. Will D. Campbell (who passed away last June, starting this unfortunate chain of great Southern voices lost), filmed a documentary about a snake handler, and toured with the Allman Brothers during the '70's. His photo subjects included musicians like the Allmans, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. He was a photojournalist for Look magazine in the war in Biafra, and those photos earned him an Overseas Press Club Citation for Excellence — Best Coverage of a Foreign News Event.

Many of us rightfully mourned the passing of John Egerton and his passionate intellectual approach to writing about Southern food. But now that Al Clayton is gone, we've lost the buttered side of that particular biscuit. We'd all better really up our Instagram games in a big way to make up for his absence.

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