photography, San Francisco

Maiden Lane

A lot of text, lately, on this blog, so I’ll keep this brief. This is a picture I took after some rain in downtown San Francisco. This is Maiden Lane, near Union Square, a stretch of high-end boutiques and shops. A pair of opera singers used to set up at one end and sing, but I haven’t seen them for some time.

Once called Morton Lane, the street housed brothels back when San Francisco was wilder. They were destroyed in 1906, but the pursuit of lucre remains.


Photo of kite photography at Crissy Field.
art, cool

Trip the Kite Fantastic

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.

a view to the north

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:

Story: The View From Above
Issue: May/June 2009


Photo Geotagging Tutorial for KDMC

The Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley has published my tutorial on Geotagging and Mapping Photos. In it, I go through a set of steps on how to assign location data to images shot on a digital camera and how to use the results to put the images in an online map.

The KDMC guys wanted me to use a specific set of tools: an Amod AGL3080 GPS Data Logger, HoudahGeo phototagging software, Excel, and ZeeMaps.

All of the tools worked great for me—although there was a general failure of the Amod GPS trackers when we tried to download the geodata during our December workshop, so proceed carefully if you choose to use one of those. (I would love any recommendations on other GPS devices for this purpose). The basic workflow is as follows:

shoot photos while GPS tracker is activated —> edit photos —> load photos and GPS data into HoudahGeo —> create .csv file from matched data —> load .csv into ZeeMaps

There are some key details to remember. Make sure the clock on your digital camera is set properly; this is how the GPS data, which records time along with location, is matched with the images. When editing photos, don’t lose your EXIF (time) meta data. And be sure to read the procedures for creating the .csv file in Excel, separating data into columns, etc.—there are a few spots where little mistakes can mess up the file. The procedure, overall, is quite simple.

The biggest surprise, and a pleasant one at that, was ZeeMaps. The service is built on Google Maps, so the output both looks familiar and can be embedded into a variety of contexts. But the real strength of ZeeMaps is the variety of options it gives you: besides the ability to upload .csv files, which can include thousands of data points, there is room for a lot of configuration when it comes to adding different kinds of information and configuring the map for embedding.

That said, the results aren’t perfect. For example, more control over how photos are displayed would be nice to have. And there’s no way to trace out the path that the GPS logger recorded as I walked down side streets and over hills. Other programs do this, but neither my colleagues nor I have found a good service or program that combines all the features we’re looking for. ZeeMaps has the potential to become that, depending on what kind of features it develops. The tech people are incredibly responsive—when I sent a tech inquiry they responded in about a day and plan to incorporate a new feature as a result. I know that the new iPhoto will have photo-mapping capabilities, but have not yet had a chance to try it. I suspect the search for the perfect photo+geodata+display app will go on.

Here is a simple test map I created last month. I’ve also created a map of places I lived on the geobiography page.

China, photography

Farmer Lu

lu through neighbor's window
This is Mr. Lu. He is a farmer.

He lives in a village in northeastern China. He has traveled throughout the country but his favorite part is this little valley. His family has been here for centuries. These are his cattle:

Every morning he takes his cattle out to graze, then brings them back around lunchtime. He usually orders lunch from the village restaurant.lunch with lu

If there are guests, there is beer. Lu says he can drink 27 bottles in one sitting. beer in lu\'s house

He was one of the poorest people in his village when he was a boy. Now he is among the most prosperous. He’s got the cash to prove holding up money as daughter stands by

That’s his younger daughter. She refused to hold up any of her dad’s cash.

There is a cat that hangs around their property. It showed up one day, unbidden. The next morning, it had deposited eighteen mice on their doorstep. Eighteen.

He’s a good cat, says Lu. They haven’t had any problems with mice since then.

Lu’s daughter refused to hold up any of her father’s money. But she was happy to hold the cat.daughter holding cat

anticipation, India, photography, ridiculousness

Meanwhile, India Waits

Sorry for the delay on the India photos, for those who’ve been asking. I hope now that the FLW project is done (will believe it when I see it), will have time to take care of all the India, Shanxi, Liaoning stuff. As for the above picture, my understanding is that this building exists purely for the sake of symmetry.
anticipation, Asia, China, international, journalism, multimedia, photography


village boy

So there’s a story related to this picture. Actually, the story I’m telling is about the village where this boy lives. It’s the reason why I’ve embargoed all of my photos from China last August. Check Frontline/World tomorrow (Thursday, the last day of January) and you’ll see what I mean.

environment, unfortunate

Lovely As a Tree: All That Remains

There it is. Or was. All that remains.

A pile of soggy sawdust and a few lost leaves. When I wrote about watching this tree being cut apart, I cited a useful Christian Science Monitor article on the value of trees in urban areas. And I am recently reminded of a terrific song called “The Trees,” by Pulp, an old favorite band from way back. In the refrain, Jarvis Cocker croons, “Yeah, the trees, those useless trees produce the air that I am breathing.”

Sort of a strange line.

My tree has probably been reduced to pulp.