Night Photography & Inspiration/Interview with John Vias

By Carolyn Edlund

John Vias is an award-winning night photographer. He spoke with Artsy Shark about night photography, how he got started, and what he’s learned along the way.


AS: Why did you choose to do night photography?

JV: In late 2003, I needed to shoot film for my B&W darkroom class. I’m a night owl, and one night I realized that even though it was dark outside, I could still go out and shoot. The results intrigued me. The following semester, I took a night photography class and switched to color film. I’ve been shooting exclusively at night ever since. I sometimes ask visitors to my studio if they’ve ever seen night photography before, and almost all say no. I’m proud that my work is their first exposure to this genre, and I hope, through my work, to inspire people to see the beauty that surrounds us everyday.

AS: What are some differences between night photography and other types of photography?

JV: The feel and look of the night are very different from those of the day. Night can be peaceful and still, or shadowy and dangerous. Pools of light are interspersed with regions of darkness, adding drama. Often, the landscape is devoid of people. The film sometimes shifts colors toward blue. Nighttime light can come in many colors from many sources—streetlights, industrial spotlights, neon signs, and more. All these factors add to night photography’s other-worldly quality. The scenes are familiar, yet strange.

Try this thought experiment: Picture a tree.

Got it? Was the scene you imagined at night? Why not? As you know, trees exist at night too. But we’re so habituated to daylight that we often don’t imagine how an object might look at night, so when we see it then, it looks odd. Of course, if humans were nocturnal, night photography would simply be called “photography,” and there might be a niche called “day photography.”

AS: You have said that your work is a meditative process. How so?

JV: As anyone familiar with photography knows, the dimmer the scene, the longer it takes to register on film (or increasingly, a digital sensor). At night, even under streetlight, the shutter needs to stay open for several minutes. Away from city lights, a single exposure may take hours. And because of the dim lighting, the camera can’t tell me exactly how long to expose the film. I have to estimate exposure based on my experience and the scene’s light level. To try to ensure I get one good shot, I take multiple photos of each scene, doubling the exposure each time.

All this means that I spend a lot of time at each location, mostly waiting for the film to do its thing. So I have time to look around and appreciate the beauty of both nature and the built environment. Add stillness and quiet, and night photography can be a time of reflection. Other nights, I play solitaire on my cell phone.

AS: What suggestions would you give others who want to launch art careers?

JV: If you are an artist who wants to sell your work, you are an entrepreneur running a business. Don’t let that thought intimidate or overwhelm you. There are lots of entrepreneurs out there, and they’re no more capable than you. After all, creativity is a huge asset when running a business, and you’ve got that.

I highly recommend the short book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland, which helps dispel the myth that artists are bad businesspeople. And that you must be born with talent to be successful. There are many negative stereotypes about artists, and we need an antidote. You might consider rereading it every so often to keep the negative voices at bay.

It’s important to get good at whatever kind of art you make. Practice until you’re confident in your skill. Not everyone will like your work. Not to worry—no artist’s work is for everyone. Just make sure that if someone doesn’t buy it, it’s not because it wasn’t well-executed.

While you’re practicing, envision what success as an artist looks like for you. Do you want to make your entire living with your art or have another source of income? Would you like to teach? Do you want to sell through galleries, your own studio, art fairs, online, some other way? Is licensing your work or making prints part of the picture?

Once you have your vision in mind, determine what steps you need to take to get there. A creativity or art career coach can help you get clarity and stay on track. If you don’t focus, you can spend a lot of time unsure of what to do next. I wish I knew at the start of my art career what I know now. I would be even further along.

Depending on your goals, it may take some time to attain success. That’s OK—just get started. And then keep going. One of my favorites quotations is from President Calvin Coolidge:

Press on: nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance.

Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

John Vias

A family member might say you have no business being an artist. Keep going. A gallery owner might say she doesn’t want to show your work. Keep going. A licensor might say your work isn’t right for his clients. Keep going. It’s the only way to attain your vision. The only guarantee of failure is giving up.

I wish you every success.

View JohnVias.com for more information and to see John’s  portfolio.

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  1. […] Edlund from Artsy Shark, recently posted an interview with me. In it, I tell the story of how I got started, what’s unique about night photography, how […]

  2. […] Edlund, who aims to get exposure for emerging artists through her blog, Artsy Shark, posted an interview with me. In it, I tell the story of how I got started, what’s unique about night photography, […]

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