On Location: Photographer Kwaku Alston’s Malibu Greenhouse
“I spent my twenties in New York finding myself, and my thirties in Venice detoxing from New York City lifestyle. Here in Malibu, I can be grounded in nature but still have access to the commercial photography work that L.A. provides,” explains photographer Kwaku Alston on moving to Malibu’s Point Dume.
The remote location seemed a precarious choice for a photographer who works on national campaigns with Hollywood’s A-list, but breathtaking views, beach proximity, and abundant outdoor living spaces reveal the logic behind his latest move.
On a breezy spring afternoon, trailing behind his son Kave and the resident pterodactyl Chomp, Alston answered some questions.
GC: Your signature vintage Volkswagon bus images have given way to coyotes, hawks and snakes. Tell me about transitioning from Abbot Kinney to Point Dume.
KA: This is like grown-up Venice. My last twenty years were in NYC and Venice Beach. You get used to having people close to you, to walking everywhere, even the noise level. I don’t miss the car alarms going off, but adjusting to quiet took time.
When you don’t see a snake or coyote regularly you don’t stop to think about why you may be afraid of them. I needed to reprogram to be around nature.
GC: When you first mentioned a garden project, it sounded like a petit greenhouse and a vegetable bed…
KA: It was supposed to be a quarter of this size. But there were five-foot drops and spikes coming out of the ground. It was a disaster waiting to happen with Kave and his friends. We cleared the landscape to make it more kid-friendly.
GC: How did you decide what to plant?
KA: Originally it was my vegetable garden. Then my wife Marjan wanted roses. I wanted a sandier-look, maybe some pea-gravel, but she wanted white stone, with weeping grasses of Provence. It became a big family decision-making event. We went to nurseries together.
GC: What was the family consensus?
KA: A landscaper named Paul Major guided us. We put in pomegranate, avocado, and apple trees, three different types of oranges and lemons. There are two types of lavender and sage. And a lot of box plants. They’re supposed to fill in quickly but it’s almost been a year!
GC: What are you and Kave working on in the greenhouse?
KA: Today we’re planting microgreens, some arugula.
GC: What’s on the playlist?
KA: IZ, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. I love his “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”! And Bob Marley, John Lennon’s “Karma”, of course.
GC: How much of your family’s food do you grow?
KA: About 60% of our produce comes from our garden, and excess goes to neighbors and friends or preschool.
This is our second season of biodynamic gardening, which means that we’re trying to figure out what grows well in Point Dume’s microclimate. One moment there’s big fog coming in and the next there’s intense sunlight.
GC: Has gardening affected your photography?
KA: Gardening is another creative outlet for me. All creativity comes from same place. When I was younger I thought that it was all about painting, drawing, photography… But going out to garden helps refill the creative well for photography.
GC: This is the life!
KA: Malibu is a great place to transition. I grew up in the D.C. area, which is more diverse. There’s diversity in L.A., you just need to drive. But the goal is to live in Hawaii. Here, I am learning from locals. They’ve been growing here for decades, so I joined the Malibu Gardening Club to learn their secrets.
GC: As a garden newbie, what surprised you most about the process?
KA: The time and dedication it takes. It’s more than a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. There’s no instant gratification.
GC: What’s the best part?
KA: Work has me connected to the Internet 24-7. The garden gets me and Kave off of screens and into nature. I can detach from the world’s craziness and the hustle and bustle of commercial photography. Also, my grandparents in Philly gardened and I am happy to pass the tradition on to my son.