Remembering Al Clayton

                                                     Al Clayton

Al Clayton, a friend, extraordinary photographer and human being, cook and former collaborator, died just a month ago. 

I don’t know who started calling him “Crazy” Al in our family. Maybe it was because Al was quirky, creative and sometimes moody. I like to think of Al as crazy like a fox, a fool, court jester, or maybe a shaman-or crazy like someone who had an intimate knowledge of suffering but still managed to be compassionate and laugh at himself. Al had a big heart and a big sense of the absurd. Who else would create a cookbook for roadkill and make it both visually stunning and hilariously tongue-in-cheek? Or a striking photo essay on transvestites he called "Queen"? Or frequent a middle-of-nowhere north Georgia church to photograph snake handlers?

 Al seemed to be able to capture the vulnerability, the passion and the pathos of those who walked among us who were often marginalized. We saw through Al the hunger of Biafran children and Appalachian families, people geographically far apart but linked by a common and pernicious plight. His camera was respectful, courageous and honest. For Al, those qualities were always a part of his work. 

What I loved about Al the most, and there were many things, was that he could see and record all of that, and I knew he could feel all that, and still he loved to laugh and eat and share a good story with just about anyone. He took his work seriously, but not himself. He combined the qualities of a  barbecue pit master with an irreverent preacher's persona. One of a kind he was.

I loved the time I spent with Al doing our book,  A Book of Feasts, Recipes and Stories from American Celebrations. We traveled with Liza Nelson, my co-author to New Orleans, San Francisco, Martha’s Vineyard and south Georgia. He told me stories about how he came to be a photographer while in the Navy. The tales were sometimes harrowing and hard to listen to. They were not about war, but about documenting injuries and birth defects of newborn infants in Navy hospitals. I always got the sense that he told the stories because he just couldn’t fathom how something so sad could exist-as if telling what he saw could help him make sense of suffering and evil.  He may never have understood all that, but he sure helped the rest of us to see it existed.

I am sad Al has left us. I won’t get to eat barbecue with him again or go on a road trip and try his patience with my directives for book photos or hear this drawled comments about “that woman”, his beloved wife, Maryann.

I have some consolation that some of his work is preserved in the Southern Collection at the University of North Carolina library in Chapel Hill, just a short walk from my home.  It is good to know some part of Al is just around the corner, helping me to to remember what he gave us.

For more information about Al Clayton, here is a link to an NPR interview and an obituary.  




  1. Jennie Claytonj's avatar
    Jennie Claytonj
    | Permalink
    Thank you for this, Kay. I remember when you all were working on your book together. Such a good time and a beautiful piece.
  2. Auntie Faye's avatar
    Auntie Faye
    | Permalink
    Jenny, please contact me via email above.

Leave a Comment