It’s fun to take pictures from high up. A few years ago, a friend working as a wedding planner let me roam around the top floor of the Bank of America building as she set up someone’s wedding ceremony. These were the best sustained views of San Francisco I’ve ever had.
In the picture above, you can see hundreds of boats clustered on the Bay. They were out watching the annual Blue Angels airshow. Whenever the jets buzzed past the tower, the wedding party, killing time until the ceremony, would rush to the windows.
It was around this time, I think, that I stumbled across the work of Cris Benton on Flickr. I didn’t know who he was or how, exactly, he did it, but he was taking great aerial photos. Over the years, I discovered that he is a professor of architecture at Berkeley. (Even later on, I’d find out that one of my closest friends actually worked for him at the school.) But I kept coming back to Benton’s photography, and his multidisciplinary Hidden Ecologies project.
Benton makes his own radio-controlled camera rigs and then hoists them into the air with kite-power. I wrote about Benton’s work in the latest issue of California magazine, in a story titled “A View from Above.” That’s him in action in the photo at the top of his post.
That picture was taken at Crissy Field last Easter Sunday, a popular spot for windsurfers (and kite-flyers) because the wind blows so powerfully through the Golden Gate. The kite at this moment is still relatively low, compared to the altitude he’d reach a few minutes later. But it gives a good sense of what he’s doing. I drew this up to help illustrate:
Over the next 40 minutes or so, dozens of people stopped to watch. Eventually, so many came by to ask questions that I was answering on his behalf as he worked to keep the kite under control. (He later told me that when someone stops to ask what he’s doing, he’ll explain and then ask them to stick around and act as a docent, handling all the gawkers who inevitably follow).
Benton’s been doing this for about 15 years, but kite photography has been around for a lot longer. One of the most compelling historical images of San Francisco was taken soon after the 1906 earthquake, and it was taken using kites. The photographer George Lawrence fashioned his Lawrence Captive Airship from a train of kites and a huge camera (I’ve heard something like 50 pounds, with a negative suitable for 18×48-inch prints). He took what I think of as the iconic picture of San Francisco in ruins — from 2,000 feet up.
Benton’s an incredibly sharp guy, a great interview and a lot of fun. If you’re curious about kite photography or how to get into it, check out his Notes on Kite Aerial Photography. It’s a few years old, but the message boards continue to be a active, a lively set of discussions and a good resource for anyone looking for tips or guidance from the kite aerial photography community. His work put him on the cover of the first issue of Make magazine, and if you have eight minutes or so, I urge you to watch Make Television’s video of him doing his thing: