Photographer captures drama of Berkeley after dark

Skyline in Blue. All photos: John Vias

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’?”

Moonlit Bench

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.

Large Boat Winch

“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.

Fairy Tale Benches

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.

Overpass

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.

Eternal

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.”

Bench and Poles

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.

Silos

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  • Anonymous

    Beautiful photos!

  • planetdancer

    Gorgeous! 

  • Geech

    These are phenomenal.  I would love some higher res versions to use for my desktop image.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    John Vias offers screen saver versions on his website. See here: http://www.johnvias.com/screensaver.php 

  • Bill

     I love these.  I’ve tried to do this but never captured anything so lovely.  Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1282526519 Rose Barrett

    I absolutely love these images. I will make it a point to visit during open studios. 

  • Caley Concannon

     These are stunning. 

  • BHS student

    I’ve seen most of these places before, but they have a haunting glow in these photographs. Well done!

  • Dan Alpert

    Thanks for sharing that! 

  • Anonymous

     Wow!

  • eastbayopine

    fabulous photos

  • Pjcjacobson

     Terrific, inspiring and ennobling  photos of my adoptive home to look back at with nostalgia one day….

  • Anonymous

     OMG these photographs are so beautiful. So THAT’s why people still shoot on film. I am going to the website now to buy the book.

  • Jeanne Pimentel

     These are exquisite.  I live in SW Berkeley and love to wander in this area, but never expected to see it looking more charming than any picture postcard.  I’ll go to his studio and maybe purchase a print or two.  Thank you.
    – Baysider

  • http://www.johnvias.com John Vias

    Thank you, everyone. I’m humbled by your kind words. If you’d like to see more, please come to my studio during East Bay Open Studios, June 4/5 and 11/12. I’ll have prints in multiple sizes, a screensaver, plus my book of West Berkeley photos (http://www.blurb.com/user/store/jpvias). Details on the News page of my website (http://www.johnvias.com/news.php).

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, those links got mangled. These should work:
    The book: http://www.blurb.com/user/store/jpvias
    My site’s News page: http://www.johnvias.com/news.php

  • cal

     HDR overload – very nice.

  • Anasuya

    Gorgeous. Even the grimier sides of Berkeley look pristine and perfect in this light.

  • that_guy_from_kinkos

     Tim Baskerville, who John Vias is kind enough to name as a mentor, is one of the cooest dudes (and most talented photographres) I’ve ever met.
     
    “Fairy Tale Benches,” is absolutely brilliant, and shows what can happen when veering just beyond the edge of reciprocity failure (the phenomena responsible for the distortions of colors that accompanies (technical) over-exposure.
    This is one of more than a few photographic effects that skilled, patient photographic artists can achieve that digital CANNOT duplicate.
     

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NV36HUKC7NM4PHZATTJNO3FSKQ AmericanBlues

    Beautiful!

  • Kpark

    These images are calmingly waking me up this morning as I eat my oatmeal. There’s a peaceful aspect about the night that you beautifully capture in your photographs.