Ayton, Alexander (1829–1900), professional photographer, was born in Scotland but in the early 1860s came to Ireland, where he set up in business in Derry city, first at an address in the Crescent, then (1864) moving to a purpose-built studio in Kennedy Place. Thirty years later he transferred his main business to Shipquay Place, and opened a branch in Carlisle Road.
Large numbers of his numerous portraits of Derry people survive, most now as anonymous and obscure as those of any other photographer of the time. The real interest of his work lies in early views of Derry and Donegal. One particularly striking image, entitled ‘Mass in the mountains of Donegal’, which shows a priest and his whole congregation assembled for worship in the open air at a thatched scalan (altar), can be dated to 1867. This and a dozen other views, including classic scenes of illicit distillers at work and picturesque poverty in Tory Island and elsewhere, survive in the form of half-tone plates in Sights and scenes in Ireland, a late 1890s limited-edition volume dedicated to Queen Victoria.
Ayton's career of nearly forty years in Derry provided him with a much better living than that enjoyed by most photographers. He and his family evidently maintained their links with Scotland. His eldest son, a solicitor, practised in Edinburgh. Another, Alexander junior, after learning his trade with his father, also settled in Edinburgh, where he became a prominent photographer in his own right and president of the Edinburgh Photographic Society; he predeceased his father (who had an interest of some sort in the Edinburgh studio), dying in 1894. A third son, also a photographer, inherited the Derry studio. One of the two daughters married a Derry man; the other married a Scotsman who became town clerk at Ayr. At his death in 1900 Ayton left estate valued at the considerable sum of £3,283.
A number of his glass negatives, including exterior and interior views of a local printing works c.1900 and a set of stereoscopic photographs taken during Edward VII's visit to Derry in 1903, survive in a private collection.