Artist’s Statement: Salt Pond aerials

On approach to SFO, a glance out of the airline window finds the South Bay’s patchwork of vivid salt evaporation ponds. These ponds support a five-year-long process of solar evaporation that yields 500,000 tons of salt a year. As San Francisco Bay water makes the trip from 2% to 32% salinity it evolves through a succession of bright colors – evidence of halophilic algae, bacteria, and other organisms that thrive at specific elevated salinities. And these tiny creatures paint our day’s version of what has been a remarkably transitional landscape.

South San Francisco Bay as seen by satellite (NASA).

The salt evaporation impoundments cover what was once a vast marshland. In the mid-19th Century small “mom & pop” salt operations were established alongside a scattering of landings placed along the major creeks as they met the bay. The landings, with names that linger on contemporary maps, served the important function of connecting East Bay agriculture and the growing market of San Francisco. As the Bay Area railway network expanded, local shipping waned in importance and the landings faded away.

South Bay geography was reshaped in 1880 by the construction of the South Pacific Coast Railroad line connecting Newark and Alviso. Thirty years later the bay gained its first bridge on the Dumbarton Cutoff rail line connecting Hayward and San Mateo. Transitions continued as the development of highways and trucking lessened the importance of the rail lines.

Meanwhile, the salt ponds changed as small operations were subsumed by waves of corporate consolidation. In recent times one company, Cargill Salt, owned the salt-making rights to all 41,000 acres of South San Francisco Bay salt ponds. In 2003, Cargill sold 16,500 acres of salt ponds and salt-making rights to a coalition of non-profit and government agencies. The transferred wetlands will be managed for the public good with an emphasis on wildlife habitat, flood control, and recreation. In this new transition some of the ponds are destined to become tidal marshland again.

The Hidden Ecologies Project / Exploratorium

My casual curiosity about the South Bay landscape became more focused when I met Dr. Wayne Lanier, a microbiologist who was working on a project entitled ‘Hiking with a Field Microscope.’ Wayne and I started hiking the South Bay to take photographs at our peculiar scales – me from a kite and Wayne through the microscope. This was great fun as we learned from each other and the juxtaposition of our views. The collaboration evolved into the Hidden Ecologies project under the aegis of San Francisco’s Exploratorium. The project is exploring methods to look at places in ways that juxtapose scales, collect different points of view, and encourage the sharing of ideas.

As Wayne and I explored the South Bay an iterative process evolved. Time and time again, our hikes and associated photographs revealed puzzling aspects of the landscape. We would then conduct a phase of armchair exploration using remarkable tools that have become publicly available in the last few years. With a personal computer you can now easily access high-resolution versions of the 1858 US Coastal Survey T-Sheets, the 1878 Thompson & West Alameda County Atlas, 1928 aerial photographs of the South Bay, contemporary aerial photographs and more. Searching the cartobibliographic sources would answer some questions and raise others. So, it is back to the field to gather more data, and raise more questions.

Arthur Batut took the first kite aerial photographs in 1887. This is his apparatus as illustrated Batut’s La Photographie Aérienne par Cerf-Volant.

Arthur Batut took the first kite aerial photographs in 1887. This is his apparatus as illustrated Batut’s La Photographie Aérienne par Cerf-Volant.

Kite Aerial Photography

For the last decade I have been taking photographs from kite-lofted cameras and this has been a remarkably engaging endeavor. Kite photography began about the same time the first railroad crossed the South Bay and experienced a golden age before fixed wing aircraft became the dominant platform for aerial photography. In the last decade, kite aerial photography has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, fueled in part by communities on the Internet and a plethora of new technologies in photography, kite making, and radio control.

Among the joys of kite aerial photography (KAP) are the opportunities for invention, the physical challenge of positioning kite and rig, the unusual ‘once removed’ aspect of composition in absentia, contact with a fine group of KAP colleagues, and the distinct pleasure of messing around with kites.

Kite aerial photography appeals to that part of me, perhaps of all of us, that would slip earthly bonds and see the world from new heights. An aerial view offers a fresh perspective of familiar landscapes and in doing so challenges our spatial sensibilities, our grasp of relationships. Poet Thomas Campbell observed “’Tis distance lends enchantment to the view.” You might think ‘tis height lends enchantment to KAP but its charms are considerably more subtle. For me they lie in a vantage point that lies just beyond normal human experience even if only by a few meters. It turns out that the vast heights are best left to powered aircraft while the viewpoints below 200 feet offer prime, and often unexplored, KAP territory.

Scratch built camera cradle for Canon SD800is. The cradle uses radio control to rotate, tilt, change aspect from landscape to portrait, and fire the shutter.

Scratch built camera cradle for Canon SD800is. The cradle uses radio control to rotate, tilt, change aspect from landscape to portrait, and fire the shutter.

Repackaged 2.4 GHz radio used to control camera cradle with a single hand.

Repackaged 2.4 GHz radio used to control camera cradle with a single hand.

Kite aerial photography is a delightful technique for documenting the South Bay. While standing in that flat landscape the visual experience of the ponds is dominated by sky reflection from the water. Lofting a camera allows a view straight down and this eliminates most sky reflection to reveal the colors and textures of the ponds and, in ways I had not anticipated, traces from previous epochs in the landscape.

Most of the images in this WWW site were taken by using a kite, unseen in the image, to lift a small, radio-controlled cradle that holds a camera. I position the camera by walking around and/or letting out or retrieving kite line. I aim the camera and fire its shutter using a radio while I stay at the ground end of the kite line. The camera can rotate through the compass, tilt from horizon to nadir, and change from portrait to landscape format. I compose my images by watching the camera and imagining what it would see. The whole process entertains me to no end.

Sutton Flowform 30 – a wind-inflated kite.

Many of these images were taken using a lightweight rig developed around the Canon Digital Elph series, beginning with the original two-megapixel S100 model and continuing to my current seven-megapixel SD800is. Over the last year I have also been using a heavier, and more capable, rig designed around the Canon Digital Rebel XTi single lens reflex.

For control I use a radio transmitter operating on the general use 2.4 GHz band to control the camera cradles. Originally developed for radio-controlled aircraft, I have repackaged my radio for operation with a single hand.

In the field, I am able to carry the two camera cradles, the radio control, accoutrement, and up to five kites in a modest backpack. The kites range from a tough little air-inflated model, used when winds are blowing over 20 mph, to a diaphanous carbon-framed giant for when the winds barely stir. With a range of kites available the goal is to select one that will provide sufficient pull to lift the camera but not much beyond that. This keeps vibration to a minimum and makes hand holding the kite practical.

Lightweight 8.5-foot Rokkaku sewn in lightweight rip stop nylon with carbon-fiber-reinforced frame.

Once a great estuary, the South Bay was shaped locally by maritime transportation, then railroads, and now our highways. More significantly, the entire fabric of the wetlands was transformed through interventions for salt extraction. The area’s transitions continue with the ambitious South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project and its focus on wildlife habitat, recreation, and flood control. I greatly enjoy my time in the South Bay, learning about its past, and thinking about its future. If you know details about the sites shown in these photographs or others related to the South Bay’s cultural past I would be delighted to hear about it. I am particularly interested in old photographs and maps that illuminate patterns in the landscape that we encounter today.

Cris Benton

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