By Shawn Williams
AH: “Hi Shawn, I’m just calling to see how you’re doing.” SW: “Actually…I’m glad you called. I’m launching a magazine.” AH: “I’m in. What’s it about?”
That April 2011 phone call was typical Alex Hayden—a fierce loyalist and supporter of the people he believed in.
Before he was tragically killed in a bicycle accident by a hit-and-run driver, Alex Hayden was an international advertising and editorial photographer based in Seattle. I met him in 2003 when I was an art director at Seattle Homes & Lifestyles magazine and over the next 15 years, including for the most recent seven years, when he was GRAY’s beloved go-to interiors and architectural photographer, I offered him as many editorial pieces as he would take on.
We’d arrived on location together with high standards—neither of us interested in simply taking pictures and going home. From the very beginning, we aimed to push not only our own technical and artistic skills but also each other’s, to make each picture hold its own in a story and pull the viewer in on some emotional level. Discovering this creative counterpart made it easy to sync with Alex during a shoot. Over time, we could finish one another’s sentences—or not even need to speak at all, by then both knowing how the other thought about compositions, styling, lighting, and angles. It was a rare connection and what every art director wishes every shoot could be like.
But Alex was more than a creative force. He was kind on set to editors, art directors, stylists, assistants, homeowners, designers, architects, and CEOs alike. To quote GRAY’s senior editor, Rachel Gallaher, “he made a day working feel like a day of play.” He took time to be inclusive, gracious, and often silly or self-effacing to keep the spirit light.
Between shots we became friends, swapping stories and advice about newborns, parenting, marriage, business, music, movies, life. On some shoots, he was all too pleased with himself about conversing nearly entirely in movie dialogue or ’80s music lyrics (after all, The Clash is the only band that matters). The pop culture references were almost always lost on me. My husband’s most prolific memories of Alex are of me texting him in the middle of the afternoon, “Brian, is this a movie line? What’s a good comeback?”. Not a single shoot went by that didn’t include him replying at some point to a request with, “as you wish,” accompanied by a big cheeky smile.
So in April 2011, when I told him about my new venture, GRAY magazine, it was an obvious move on my part to welcome him aboard. But his generous response—essentially, “I’m in, whatever you’re doing”—epitomized the kind of person he was. In an interview with the American Society of Media Photographers in 2013, he was asked, “If you were a superhero, what would your power be?” His reply: “I would feed the people. In the Hayden family, we feed a fever, feed a cold, feed happiness, feed sadness, feed boredom, and feed excitement.”
As news spread of his unexpected death in July 2018, social media lit up. Story after story from family, friends, clients, and even those who had never personally met him, all attested to his exceptional character. “Alex showed up,” posted his neighbor Maia Segura, “He showed up on a 90-degree day with an armful of beers and gratitude when we mucked out our traffic circle. He showed up at 5:30 am to help cheer on Seattle-to-Portland [bike] riders when he wasn’t riding himself. He showed up when a fence panel blew down on a stormy winter day.” This was Alex. Over and over and over, memories like this were shared of Alex as a high schooler, a college friend, a young adult living in Japan, and up to his last days in Seattle. I believe his friend Betina Simmons spoke for us all in a message posted to Alex’s Facebook page, “We will try to live up to your example of kindness, humor, service to others, and commitment to common good.”
Alex, thank you. GRAY wouldn’t be what it is today without your tireless support, generosity, friendship, and exquisite imagery. I am shattered. All of us at GRAY miss you.
XO, XLAL Shawn
Alex Hayden (1967–2018)
Aaron (Alex) Hayden was raised in Athens, Georgia, and educated at the University of Würzburg, then Davidson College in North Carolina, majoring in history. After college, he moved to Japan to teach English, and then to New York for the next 10 years where he spent three years as an assistant to photographer Bruce Wolf, whom Hayden credited with teaching him “everything he knows about photography.” In 1997 he founded Alex Hayden Photography and in 1998 he and his wife Susan moved to Seattle.
His life experiences were evident throughout his body of work, which married a sense of southern hospitality with a thoughtful, creative eye. Often emulated by others, Hayden was known for his modern, clean interiors and product shots, capturing his subject matter at its most flattering. His images are at once crisp, clean, and ethereal. He enjoyed exploring the shapes, textures, and dimensionality that light creates as it fills a room. You can see in his work that he thrived on the challenges of the craft, doing on set what others may opt to do digitally in post. Bruce Wolf noted Hayden as an exceptional artificial light photographer.
He shot with a Hasselblad 500CM digital back and a Canon EOS 5D Mark 2. He shot much of his personal work on film, dusting off his 8×10 or 4×5 for special projects.
Hayden was one of the best—and the best to work with—photographers in the country. His dedication and skill were second to none, something he proved time and again with a stable of clients who hired him repeatedly. In addition to his frequent contributions to GRAY—his work appeared in 30 issues out of our 41 to date—he worked for everyone from This Old House and Consumer Reports to Starbucks, Target, and Bosch Appliances. His dedication to the Seattle design community was evident not only in his stellar photography but also in his efforts to accommodate the tight budgets of emerging designers that brought his polished documentation— a key to helping their businesses grow—within reach.
Curiosity, and a desire to continue to learn and understand the medium were evident in his side projects. These included a series of four-second portraits he took of interesting neighbors and friends with his 8×10 and his obsession with taking pictures underwater. He worked on a project until it was mastered, then rose to another challenge.
Hayden cheered on fellow photographers and artists such as William Rugen, Paul Sounders, Tim Aguero, Adam Smith, Patrick Bennett, Ron Klein, Michelle Cristalli, Rachel Grunig, to name a few. He often hired up-and-coming photographers to assist his shoots, and generously shared his knowledge, tips, and advice. He used his craft for the good of the community as well, volunteering for several years to photograph portraits and food stills for the Plate of Nations, a multicultural restaurant week in Seattle. For fun, he photographed portraits during neighborhood birthday parties, Fourth of July parties, anniversaries, weddings, and more.
He approached every project, professional or volunteer, with the same gusto. He gave everyone his best. Alex Hayden is gone, but his singular work and legacy will live on as one of the Northwest’s great treasures.