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 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.
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.
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.
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.