© Kwaku Alston
When Kwaku Alston moved from New York City to Los Angeles 13 years ago and bought a building in Venice Beach, “everyone thought I was crazy,” he laughs. But buying property is “the smartest thing I ever did, and I recommend that [to all photographers],” he says. “If you’re making a little cash, buy some property.”
When Alston purchased his two-story, Spanish modern, live-work space on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, now considered one of the hottest blocks anywhere, the area was “gang-infested,” he recalls. People told him, “Your career is going to go to hell.”
But there were other artists living in the area. “When I moved to Abbot Kinney, no joke, there were ten photographers on my block,” Alston recalls. He could walk down the street and have lunch and talk shop with legendary architectural photographer Martin Rand, and all of the artists “had a great fellowship,” he says.
Alston bought the building from a painter, Enrique Martinez Celaya, who also designed the space. The big selling point was the light. “The light was like 5.6/125 all day long, in one big 2,000-square-foot room [on the second floor],” he says. “It was beautiful.”
In the 13 years Alston has been there, the portion of the building he uses for his studio has grown and contracted, and the building’s adaptability has been valuable as the market—and neighborhood—has changed.
At one time Alston maintained a full-service studio, with a full-time staff of four. Celebrities and their handlers liked coming to his space because they could park easily on the street, and they could be relatively anonymous. Then a paparazzi agency moved in nearby and figured out that he had famous subjects coming in and out. “I had paparazzi outside,” he recalls. “So it killed my studio vibe, and I ended up remodeling my studio and turning [the former studio space] into a high-end [residential] rental.”The downsizing wasn’t such a bad thing, he says. Maintaining a big studio is expensive, and puts pressure on you to work constantly. “After a while you get to a point where you’re managing so many people, you’re not photographing the things you want to photograph.”
Now Alston keeps a 600-square-foot hybrid office/pop-up gallery/shooting space in part of the building, but uses it exclusively for personal work (he lives in another part of the building, and rents out the second floor). It’s important, he explains, to have a space where he can “work out my creative concepts … That is why I have a studio, and that’s why I will always have a studio. Maybe it won’t always be as big or as small, but I know I have to have a creative workspace, just to flesh out ideas, or [to keep] things I’m collecting.”
The essentials for his workspace, he says, are a good work table, an “inspiration wall” where he can hang photographs and other things he finds, and the ever-present photographer’s dilemma: storage. He also always keeps his 8 x 10 camera around.
A new husband and father, Alston is starting to consider moving off of Abbot Kinney and either selling his building or renting it out. All the artists and the “creative inspiration” are gone, and the neighborhood has become corporate. “I think it’s time for me to leave and go to another space that I can recreate.”
Kwaku Alston Studio Shots
Studio Tour: Francesco Tonelli’s Inspiring Food Photography Space