Cris Benton: Seductive images of a landscape in transition

Cargill crystallizers. Photo by Cris Benton, published in his new book Saltscapes.
Cargill crystallizers: this view shows two crystallizer beds during harvest season. The upper bed has been drained and displays the tracks left by the harvesting machinery as it gathered salt. The lower bed awaits harvest with a load of magenta “pickle” that will soon be drained. Photo by Cris Benton, published in his new book, Saltscapes.

Cris Benton, a retired professor of architecture and former department chair at UC Berkeley, recently published Saltscapes: The Kite Aerial Photography of Cris Benton (Heyday Books, 2013), which provides a fascinating, and beautiful insight into the salt evaporation ponds of the southern portion of the San Francisco Bay. The photographs are taken using a kite and radio-controlled camera, a technique Benton pioneered in the early 1980s. Berkeleyside talked to Benton — whose work has been shown at the Oakland Museum of California, the Exploratorium, and the Cooper Hewitt Museum among others — about the story behind the images, as well as some of the joys and hazards of kite aerial photography.

Can you tell us how and when you started this type of photography? 

I started my kite aerial photography (KAP) in 1984. The idea sprang from a confluence of photography and radio-controlled sailplanes, two of my favorite pastimes. I often flew my sailplanes down at Cesar Chavez Park where there is a fine community of kite fliers. While flying my planes one afternoon I bumped into Anne Rock, a Berkeley resident who talked about using kites to raise cameras. Having previously considered mounting a camera on one of my planes the kite idea struck me as brilliant since kites tend to be a stable, self-tending platform.

I spent a few years sorting out how to fly kites, mount the camera, compose the photographs, and keep my lofted gear from crashing. There was a middle period during which I travelled broadly with my KAP gear in a continual quest for aerial images compositionally worthy of display. I am now well settled into my third period, use of the technique in sustained studies of specific landscapes.


berkeleyside benton bush past prime
This bleached white skeleton is a former bush that died when a small salt pond at the north end of the Coyote Hills was connected to tidal flow via a culvert. The crackled ground texture surrounding the skeleton is a harbinger of greater change associated with the new tidal regime. Photo, by Cris Benton, published in his new book, Saltscapes.

What do you like about the images that you create with kite photography?

I was pretty much seduced by my earliest results. Here were intimate, low-altitude aerial views of the very landscape I had just occupied as a photographer. As architects we are trained to think about relationships and juxtapositions in the built environment – think bird’s eye perspectives. The kite provided a graceful, economical means to achieve these novel views. And the views could be quite surprising.

My radio can pan and tilt the camera, switch between portrait and landscape formats, and fire the shutter. I compose the images by watching the camera as it floats above and forming a mental picture of what it would see. Comparing this imagined view to the actual photographs is always a learning experience. Interesting details otherwise unseen – the tracks of animals across Bolinas Ridge or the Spenger’s Restaurant roofscape – emerge as discoveries that contribute to a sense of place.

berkeleyside benton homage to Rothko
‘Homage to Rothko.’ This shallow mud levee separates a distribution channel containing Bay water from a former salt pond loaded with a substantial amount of residual salt. As the summer season progresses, the rains of winter evaporate from inactive ponds, salinity increases, and different halophiles prosperPhoto by Cris Benton, published in his new book, Saltscapes.

What led to you spending so much time photographing the salt ponds?

In 2003 I had the good fortune of spending a sabbatical year as an Artist-in-Residence at the Exploratorium. I came across the salt ponds while taking a series of hikes with microbiologist Dr. Wayne Lanier. On these hikes Wayne would photograph through his field microscope while I took overhead views of the sampled environment.

Not knowing much about the South Bay landscape I was struck by the wonderful variety of colors and textures associated with the salt ponds. This was fun territory to photograph. After learning more about the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project I developed a proposal to continue photographing the South Bay landscape in service of the restoration efforts. The Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife issued Special Use Permits that provided permissions as well as seasonal restrictions to protect wildlife.

berkeleyside benton landing ruins at dumbarton
This landing, located near the eastern anchorage of the current day Dumbarton Bridge, is the most detailed landing ruin in the South Bay. The docks are located on what was once the channel of Beard’s Creek and were apparently connected to a railroad spur. Photo by Cris Benton, published in his new book, Saltscapes.

What discoveries did you make taking so many wonderful images? 

Discovery is a good word for that’s what fueled the project. The project began with a photographic interest in colors and textures associated with the various salinities of salt ponds in the South Bay. Curiously, you can see little of a pond’s color or bottom detail while hiking on the ground due to sky reflection from the pond’s surface.

I was having a great time bagging new colors, as though trophy animals, when I started realizing that many of the aerial images contained vestigial remnants of the marsh channels that once served square miles of South Bay marsh. Looking more closely I also found traces of old boat landings, 19th -century salt works, and curious artifacts left by over a century of dredging and duck hunting.

What began as a photographic romp through a visually compelling landscape slowly shifted toward documenting the landscape’s history and deciphering traces of it evident in my aerial photographs. My aerial images often presented puzzling artifacts and these fueled visits to libraries, map rooms, and local experts. Then it was back to the field for more photographs. After photographing for several years, I came to appreciate that the landscape was still in transition, and rapidly at that, as the salt pond restoration project gained stride. This realization has lent a sense of urgency to the project.

berkeleyside benton thunderbolt
‘Thunderbolt.’ Traces of former marsh channels abound at Bayfront Park. Photo by Cris Benton, published in his new book, Saltscapes.

You must get a constant stream of questions as your camera hovers above a landscape. What do people ask?

Absolutely: kite aerial photography easily trumps babies or puppies as inducement for perfect strangers to start a conversation. I enjoy these exchanges. Typical questions:

Can you see what the camera sees? I could, having built video downlinks to serve as real-time viewfinders, but I prefer the simplicity of imagining what the camera sees.

How many cameras have you killed? Two, one dropped in the bay at China Camp State Park and another lost to trauma at the University of Virginia. I note that during the same period I have retired ten or so cameras due to obsolescence.

Why don’t you get a drone? I enjoy the tactile pleasures of my elegant, quiet kites, which can carry my camera aloft for hours at a time. When the kite is flying well I can devote almost all of my attention to photography as opposed to a drone’s location, systems status, and battery capacity.

Why don’t you use a balloon? I am far too frugal to purchase and then release that much helium.

berkeleyside benton drawbridge
Abandoned houses: This view of the north end of Drawbridge looking toward the south illustrates the tight siting of dwellings between the Union Pacific rail line and what was once a navigable marsh channel. Photo: Cris Benton.

Have you ever run into difficulties taking photographs like this, either practical, or legal?

Practical challenges abound in KAP – matching kites to the wind conditions, avoiding Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree or, worse yet, power lines, keeping the camera cradles tuned up. Relatively few places have rules related to KAP, so I play it by ear for access unless it is a place like the South Bay with attentive regulatory agencies. The 9/11 tragedy has led to more questioning by various authorities but I usually pass muster. I was detained in Egypt for several hours. I am watching, with some apprehension, policy discussions regarding drones.

Over the years you have become quite the expert in kite photography. Is there a large community of your peers, and do you share intelligence?

Twenty years ago there were perhaps a few dozen folks worldwide who were serious about KAP and a hundred or so casual enthusiasts. I believe these numbers have expanded tenfold in the ensuing years. I credit the Internet for this growth as sites have served as important conduits for sharing technique and photographic results. In particular, Flickr has several active KAP groups and I host a KAP Discussion Page at the College of Environmental Design at UCB. The communities found at both of these sites are pleasantly active and generous in sharing information about matters KAP.

berkeleyside benton swarm at sunset
A tight swarm of shorebirds flies over an old levee near the Oliver Salt Works ruins. The birds coalesce for protection from predators and fly with a fascinating precision. Photo by Cris Benton, published in his new book , Saltscapes.

Did you incorporate kite photography into your teaching at UC Berkeley?

While I did have a couple of graduate students employ kite aerial photography in their thesis projects, the KAP learning curve is a bit too steep for application in a conventional course. For seven years I very happily taught a Documentary Photography elective course in Visual Studies in which my students explored themes related to the South Bay.

During the latter stages of my academic career, KAP was instrumental in opening the door to collaboration with colleagues in several disciplines – computer science, cultural geography, geomorphology, and more. This was delightful. 

Berkeleyside is fortunate to have published several of your photographs as you are gracious enough to post them into our Flickr pool. A recent one showed a great shot of the Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club. Is that something you have taken up now that you are retired?

It has been a pleasure to see some of my images on Berkeleyside. Thank you for posting them.

Back in the late 1990s I spent a fine day taking kite aerial photographs at the venerable San Francisco Lawn Bowling Club in Golden Gate Park. At the time I made a mental note that I should try lawn bowling at some point. When I retired from the university I stopped by the Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club to try their free lessons (every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon.) I have since joined the club and find great appeal in the nuance of the sport as well as the camaraderie of club members.

berkeleyside benton oliver salt ruins
Oliver salt ruins: long rows of piles line what appear to have been covered basins. The roof structure is long gone and the pools alternate between dry and flooded depending on the season. Photo by Cris Benton, published in his new book, Saltscapes.

What other plans do you have now? More photographic projects?

I have recently finished working with a team to install a Camera Obscura at the Exploratorium. Located on the Observatory Deck out at the end of Pier 15, it affords entertaining views of the Bay and San Francisco’s skyline. The South Bay work continues, but is largely confined to the winter half of the year in deference to nesting birds. During the summer half of the year, I am working on a new project documenting San Francisco’s Coastal Defense works along the San Francisco and Marin Headlands shorelines. Like the South Bay this is a visually interesting landscape with an intriguing back story. I find time spent exploring the headlands is well spent.

Where might we see your work in the flesh? Any shows coming up?

I currently have work on display at the Exploratorium’s new Pier 15 home. One can find an installation of 60 of my salt pond photographs arranged in a tight matrix in the museum’s East Gallery. The Tinkering Studio has some of my earlier work on display, along with a low-cost KAP rig I designed during my time as Artist-in-Residence at the Exploratorium.

In Berkeley I have a group of 50 salt pond images on display in the Dean’s Office at UCB’s College of Environmental Design. Each year I have work up somewhere in the Bay Area, most recently in the Above & Below exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California (exhibit now closed). I post notices of exhibits and talks on my Hidden Ecologies blog, which chronicles the ongoing South Bay work.

Saltscapes: The Kite Aerial Photography of Cris Benton is published by Berkeley’s Heyday Books.

Related:
For a stunning birds’ eye view, launch a kite (or a balloon)
Richard Misrach: Photographing beauty can be tricky
Humans of Berkeley and the Bay Area

Will you support Berkeleyside? You are an important ally in our mission to deliver high-quality, award-winning reporting for Berkeley. Become a Berkeleyside Member for $5, $10, or $25 a month, and keep the news flowing. Thank you for your vital support.