Award-winning photographer Al Clayton was born in Tennessee, the son of a teacher and railroad worker. He became a photographer by accident in 1952, when he joined the Navy for the sole purpose of getting the G.I. Bill to pay for medical school so he could become a surgeon. Given the rank of hospital corpsman, he was stationed at a hospital for the Marines and handed a camera to document a surgery. In that moment, his dream of becoming a physician fell way to a lifetime career in photography. After leaving the Navy, Clayton attended the Art Center School of Los Angeles. He returned to the South in 1961, working with established studios and later starting his own firms in Atlanta and, later, Nashville. Soon, Clayton began traveling through the Mississippi Delta, Eastern Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama documenting people ravaged by poverty. In July 1967 these photographs were presented at a hearing on Capitol Hill that ultimately led to an expansion of the U.S. food stamp program. They were ultimately compiled in Harvard professor Robert Coles’ 1969 landmark book, Still Hungry in America, which opened with an introduction by Senator Ted Kennedy. In 1971, Clayton permanently moved to Atlanta where he was immensely successful as a freelancer for a quarter of a century.
Throughout his lifetime, Clayton‘s work focused heavily on subjects related to the people, culture, and music of the American South. Many of his photographs have appeared in Look Magazine, Life, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, Esquire, and others. He received numerous awards, including the Overseas Press Club Award for his 1969 depiction of the Biafran War in Nigeria, plus many Clios and Addys for his commercial work. Clayton published over a dozen books and made a film of Pentecostal snake handlers, In Jesus’ Name. He was drawn to music and photographed for Rolling Stone and record companies including Epic, Columbia and Capricorn, producing over 100 album covers for Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Townes Van Zandt, among many others. In 1974, Clayton toured with the Allman Brothers, recording their most private and public moments through his lens.