Right Around the River Blog

Rocketts Landing Q&A: Beer Caves Photographer Chris Johnson

Post Date: 02-27-2014
Over the past year, RVA-based photographer Chris Johnson has been visiting Rocketts Landing with exclusive access to our community’s historic JamesRiver Steam Brewery beer caves. Located along the riverfront near the current Riverbank Terraces developments, the late-19th-century beer caves offer a perfect example of Rocketts’ former life here along the James River. In fact, these caves were recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places and nominated to the Virginia Landmarks Register!

(The only known picture of the original James River Steam Brewery at Rocketts Landing)

In his photos, Chris has captured the beautiful, magical and slightly haunting mood these caves evoke in their current state as they await development. So, we thought we’d sit down with Chris and chat about his experiences taking pictures of the beer caves — and his passion for his art (and beer, and family, among other things!). Below is our edited transcript. Enjoy!

 (Rocketts Landing Beer Caves entrance. photo credit: Chris Johnson, Flicker cpjRVA)

Rocketts Landing: How long have you been a photographer?

Chris Johnson: Since high school. I took a class before digital existed. When I was an undergrad, I was a biology major, and they had an unused dark room that they let me use. In medical school, I got my first digital camera. We lived in N.C., and I did stuff for friends and helped take promotional pictures for them, such as for a friend’s cycle and spinning business, weddings and baby pictures for friends and family. However, I really like landscape and nature. So mostly, I take pictures of scenery around town, whether that’s the river or places like the beer caves.

(Inside the beer caves. photo credit: Chris Johnson, Flickr cpjRVA)

RL: What do you find inspiration in when taking pictures?

CJ: When my wife and I moved back to Richmond, we started going out and walking around more. Growing up here, you take for granted all the cool stuff here. One of the things I hope to do now is to show people how cool Richmond is.

RL: Obviously, the Beer Caves at Rocketts Landing are quite unique and stunning. What specifically drove you to come out here and photograph the caves?

CJ: I really like beer. I don’t brew my own, but a friend and I were talking one day that wouldn’t it be cool to have our own brewery. So, we were just thinking about ideas. And my thought was: I grew up here; I know Richmond. I began looking at the history of brewing in Richmond and that’s when I found the beer caves. I got in touch with the folks at Rocketts Landing and introduced myself and that I like to document life in Richmond. Robert Hensley [vice president of Rocketts Landing] let me come in once and showed me around — and I wanted to come back. So, I’ve been there now six or eight times.

(View of the beer caves entrance and the ceiling, revealing foliage growing through. photo credit: Chris Johnson, Flickr cpjRVA)

RL: With those pictures, the beer caves are pretty dark and a difficult environment to shoot in. How did you approach taking a photo?

CJ: The beer caves are a unique environment. There was no light; it’s always probably luck. But, when I was in undergrad, I was a line designer for theatre. So, I gained a really good appreciation for light. How you can play with light and make it different and when to not use a flash. That experience helped me. Also, I got in touch with another photographer in RVA whose work I really like. I told him that I was going to these caves, and he had some extra gear, so he came and helped me set up and address the light.

If you’re standing in the entrance, there’s natural light that goes back into the caves. But, when you go deeper into the caves, it’s completely dark. We have an external flash standing somewhere. You can also do light painting, where you have a flash and paint with
the flashlight. So, you create and use two different kinds of light. And I’d use 20- to 30-second exposures.

(View from inside the beer caves with lighting effect. photo credit: Chris Johnson, Flickr cpjRVA)

RL: So, what do you do when you’re not taking pictures?

CJ: I’m an ER doctor. And I also have a wife, a toddler and a baby on the way.

RL: And you run Vintage RVA right?

CJ: Yep! I started that just after we moved back to Richmond. My son’s always loved to be outside, so we would go on walks and down by Tredegar, and then I was like, ‘Oh, you sort of take for granted all that’s here.’ So, now, I focus most of my photography on Richmond, and that’s how Vintage RVA came to be. It’s specifically pictures on anything that has to do with Richmond.

(Inside the beer caves. photo credit: Chris Johnson, Flickr cpjRVA)

RL: Overall, what do you most enjoy about Richmond? And Rocketts Landing?

CJ: Richmond is very different now then when I was growing up. I love outdoor stuff. Mountain biking, hiking, swimming, there are ample activities to do here. Like, I can get to Dogwood Dell and the North Bank Trail, right in the middle of the city. And then there’s the restaurant scene, which is so much bigger, and the growing craft beer scene. I think, just in general, the whole city has grown up.

For Rocketts Landing, since I discovered the beer caves, just the history around here is so cool and that’s, also, one of the things I feel nerdy about. There’s a lot of really cool history here. I’m excited to hear about what happens with the beer caves.

(Deep within the beer caves at Rocketts Landing. photo credit: Chris Johnson, Flickr cjpRVA)

To keep up with where Chris’ photos take him next, be sure to check him out on Flickr(CPJRVA), Facebook (CPJ RVA Photography), Twitter (@Vintage_RVA) and Instagram (Vintage_RVA). And should he make any future visits to the beer caves, or elsewhere around Rocketts Landing, we’ll be sure to keep you posted!