Interrogating the Landscape

Cris Benton
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For twenty years I have been taking low-level aerial photographs using cameras lofted by kites. Considering the abundant buzz about drones these days, kite aerial photography (KAP) might seem a bit anachronistic. Indeed, kites were used for aerial photography long before the airplane was invented. However old, they remain a very practical platform for aerial photography in the current day. As my work in kite aerial photography matured, the technique led to topics, relationships, and communities that have been richly rewarding. So much so that KAP is now my primary creative pursuit, offering the joys and challenges of an emerging career.

My current work with KAP is focused on the investigation of specific landscapes. I am using kites as a means of exploring the natural and cultural geographies of places like the South San Francisco Bay salt ponds and the multilayered coastal defense works that once protected the Golden Gate Strait. Taking aerial photographs at the intimate scale afforded by kites while simultaneously occupying the landscape being photographed proves to be a powerful way to learn about a place. The remainder of this article will be structured as an auto-interview addressing questions I often encounter in the field.

Can you describe your process for kite aerial photography?

The idea is to take photographs from somewhere between head height and 400 feet above the ground. I keep my kites below 500 feet in deference to light aircraft. To lift the camera I use single-line kites selected for stability, often taking a quiver of six to eight kites when I head out to photograph. After watching the wind (e.g., movement in trees, flags, low clouds), I select a kite that matches the breeze. The kite should pull enough to lift the camera but not too much more. After launching the kite, I fly it up to steady air. In urban settings that might put the kite at 200 to 300 feet above the ground. Out in open terrain you can find steady wind at 100 feet or so.

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