John Vias prowls the streets of our city at night. He has been doing so for years, always waiting until darkness has fallen and the traffic is sparse before venturing out.
His passion? Night photography. His territory: Berkeley west of 6th Street, including the Marina and Cesar Chavez Park. The result? Stunning, moody images which can take up to twelve minutes under a full moon to emerge on his camera after he has released the shutter.
“There is more of a sense of mystery at night,” says Vias, explaining his motivation. “Things look different because of the quality of the light and the angles. There’s a theatricality and drama, compared to seeing the same thing with an even wash of sunlight on it.”
The impetus to explore his neighborhood after dark came to Vias when he was honing his craft on a UC Extension photography course in 2003. Assigned to shoot a roll of film for a darkroom class, he decided to do the assignment after sunset. “I’m a night owl, so one evening I thought, ‘why not go out now’?”
Vias, who still only shoots on film, switched to color and found his métier. He speaks highly of his mentor, Tim Baskerville at UC Extension, and says he has also been inspired by photographers such as Michael Kenna, Edward Weston and William Eggleston.
Some of the beautiful, almost eerie effects in the images come, he says, from shifts in the film as it is being exposed to light — for Vias, a quick exposure is one minute.
“Film is not designed to be exposed for such a long time, so I get unexpected results,” he says. He mentions “Eternal” (below), a photograph of a building on Fourth and Cedar. The house comes out as blue instead of brown which only adds intrigue to the image.
Vias speaks of the difference in the way the brain and a camera “see” light, and how that also affects his work. “Brains adjust for vision and process light in a way that film does not.” An example, he says, is the different colors of the street lights in Berkeley and Emeryville, the latter being greener than the former. But it’s a distinction Vias was only able to see when developing his photographs.
In his many nights spent shooting images of west Berkeley, Vias has become an accidental historian. He recalls pictures he took of tanks outside the Flint Ink factory, now gone. Or the photographs he took of a burned-out building on Camelia, now restored. In a case of reverse documentation, his photograph of the I-80 pedestrian overpass (above) is missing the pair of sculptures that were installed after the fine-art image was captured for eternity.
Given the proposals currently under consideration to change zoning in this part of Berkeley, it is likely the area Vias roams will undergo a significant makeover over the next decade. Vias will doubtless be there to chronicle aspects of it.
Vias rarely goes out before 10 or 11pm, but he says he has not had any unsettling experiences walking the streets alone. “The police called on me once, but they left me alone after I explained what I was doing,” he says.
As for stretching his geographic horizons, he’s in no hurry. “I’m surrounded by beauty. I don’t need to stray far,” he says. “I haven’t exhausted west Berkeley yet.”
Vias’ work can be viewed by appointment at his studio on Jones Street at Eighth Street. It will also be on public view at the upcoming East Bay Open Studios during the first two weekends in June. Visit John Vias’ website for more details on his work.