A Kite’s Eye View: Cris Benton Aerial Photos

Cesar Chavez Park seen from the west, November 1997

A friend of a friend recently sent me a link to a site with wonderful aerial photographs of  Cesar Chavez Park.  The name of the site began with an acronym new to me:  KAP.  That stands, I learned, for Kite Aerial Photography.  The site belongs to Charles Benton, who goes by Cris.  He has published probably twenty thousand images taken from the air with cameras suspended by a kite.  A sliver of this production concerns our local park.  

One of Cris’ home-built cradles for positioning the camera

Benton is (now) a retired professor of architecture and environmental design at UC Berkeley.  He’s visited Cesar Chavez Park many times since it opened.  He recounts that photography has been his passion for decades, and that he also picked up a love for flying radio-controlled model gliders along the way.  Then he met a kite enthusiast, and the rest is history.  

Benton posted his first KAP photo in 1995, and he’s never stopped.  He’s had a number of photo shows, some featuring his spectacular aerial photos of the salt flats near San Jose, of which he’s also published a book.  He’s also a designer, inventor, and fabricator of the arcane custom-made gear required for taking pictures up in the air at the end of a long string. 

Cris showing how easy it is to control a kite and a camera at the same time …

Drone pilots nowadays consider it routine to view real time images from their flying craft; you can buy that gear off the shelf.  The KAP enthusiast, by contrast, needs considerable ingenuity, technical and physical skill, imagination, and luck.  With KAP, one person has to simultaneously do two tasks that normally call for  two people:  flying the kite, and taking photographs.  Cris makes it look easy, with the kite line wrapped around one gloved hand that also holds the spool, and the other hand pushing buttons on the radio control.  Assuming that the wind is steady and the kite responds to the line, taking a photo is a matter of Cris guessing where the lens is pointed at the moment, and sending the radio signal to fire the shutter.  During the early years, Cris was shooting film, not digital, so that when the roll was full, the rig had to come down and get reloaded.  My appreciation for these images doubled once I came to grips with the degrees of difficulty required to produce them.  

Cris writes that “Kite aerial photography appeals to that part of me, perhaps of all of us, that would slip our 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.”  OK, that’s him.  To me, kite photography seems like the closest we can come with current technology to seeing the world through the eyes of birds.  The kind of kite that Cris uses for photography is silent and moves at a moderate speed.  Its flying time is limited by wind, not by battery charge.  It offers the most respectful platform for seeing the wilderness and the cautious creatures that inhabit it without creating a major disturbance.    

Cris’ photos of Cesar Chavez Park are not only beautiful, they have historic interest.  His photo of parasail buggies in 1996 captures a mode of sport that has disappeared from this area.  His images of the west side of the park near the parking circle show standing trees that are no longer present.  His series of photos of the Cesar Chavez Memorial Solar Calendar show the gradual progression of this iconic feature of the park, from a plain circle in 2004 to the installation of a central concrete pad with gnomon (the upright pillar of the calendar) in 2007, to the finished grid of inlaid calendar lines and markers in 2014.  They also show the presence of a semicircular path downhill and to the east of the calendar in 2004, and the disappearance of that path by 2014.  The increase in the number of memorial benches can also be tracked in Cris’ overviews.  

I’m grateful to Cris for making his images of the park available and allowing me to post them here.  I’ve added a copyright notice, as is my policy for all images on this site that aren’t my own.  Cris’ KAP blog is here, and his Flickr photostream — phototsunami would be as accurate — is here.  Here’s a feature story on Cris in Berkeleyside (2014).  Many of his earlier photos are on the PhotoNet site.  A too-short Quest video showing Cris at work is on YouTube.  A better one done by MakeTV is here.  A Google search on Cris Benton will turn up many other sites.

Click on any image below to bring up a larger size version. 

Images taken in 1996 – 1997:

Images dated May 9, 2004:

Images dated 2005-2006:

Images dated January – March 2007:

Images of Summer Solstice at Cesar Chavez Memorial Solar Calendar, June 21, 2007:

Images taken March 2008:

Images taken January 6, 2011:

Images dated February 23, 2014:

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