Written By Brett Levine // Photography by Beau Gustafson
In that classic English comedy series “The Young Ones,” there is an episode in which Neil, the resident hippie, explains the life-cycle of food to his flatmates: “We sow the seed, nature grows the seed, we eat the seed.” At first glance, photographer Alison Miksch would seem to share few similarities with Neil, but in fact her approach to her profession has been similar. Over the course of her career, she has focused on this very same cycle: the lush beauty of verdant gardens, rich and teeming with life, and the intimacy of the well-crafted food shot, taking ingredients from pasture to plate.
Miksch’s journey to garden and food photography was a little unexpected. “I actually did a bachelor of fine arts degree,” she smiles, “but I knew that there weren’t too many specific opportunities for art photographers.” A family friend had a long history doing commercial photography, and Miksch became his assistant. “He suggested to me that I should apply to do an internship with Rodale Press,” she continues, “so I did.” Little did she know that a short-term opportunity would turn into a long-term tenure with Organic Gardening magazine. “Rodale was the leader of the organic food movement,” Miksch explains. “They had a passionate readership deeply involved with organic gardening, and I had a great time traveling across the country making beautiful images and honing my craft.” But given the range of opportunities that Rodale presented, the question must be, “Why food?” For Miksch, the answer is simple: “I landed on food photography because I loved the detail and the natural beauty of it. And food and gardens are so obviously related. It’s a great pairing.”
Miksch turned to freelancing for the first time in the mid-1990s. “This is when daylight food photography began rather than the dark studios with multiple strobe pops of the 1980s. It was fun, but it can seem a little surreal, to actually explain working then,” she laughs. “This was before digital photography came to the fore, so people were still shooting film. I loved working with film and my 4-by-5 camera in the big bright daylight studios in NYC,” she smiles. “There is something special about working in that way because it means that you simply have to slow down. Photographing gardens, for example, is all about the right light. That means early mornings and dusky evenings, when the light is lower and softer and you don’t have to think about the shadows that every leaf will make. Working with film can sometimes help the process.”
Still, she transitioned to digital, with skills that led her to Time Inc. and a position with Southern Living magazine. “I got to focus on my favorites again,” Miksch explains. There, it was all about gardens and food. But recently, faced with the company’s ongoing contractions, challenges, and changes, Miksch decided to refocus her favorite subjects—and her-self—by going freelance again. “I’ve always found the business of photography to be a little unpredictable,” she pauses. “But Birmingham is actually an incredibly vibrant city when you think of the opportunities that exist for sophisticated food and garden-related content. There are two major publishers, several independent magazines, and award-winning advertising agencies.” What this means is that professionals have opportunities to share the skills that they have long since refined, bringing sophistication and subtlety to the art that photography truly is. And this, in fact, is what Miksch truly savors. “Working in a creative field is something to be thankful for every day. Really, we’re lucky.” And she is lucky, to be standing behind the camera, adjusting the focus and aperture, and waiting for—or making—the perfect light. That’s what photography is. And whether it happens in the studio, or with a gentle breeze blowing in a garden, Alison Miksch truly does know how to sow her talents, and watch them grow. But she also adds her own unique visions, grounded in a love of painting and the study of art, the beauty of landscape and the expanses of nature. “Gardens are complicated, complex, and textured,” Miksch explains, “and food is all about details, layers, and finesse. I love them both equally.”