On the Wind

Burrowing Owl Sanctuary northeast corner of Chavez Park. Photo Cris Benton 3/7/21.

This photo of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary in the northeast corner of the park might have been taken from a drone, but wasn’t. The device that held the camera in the air used no batteries, propellers, or motors. It made no noise. It was a stitchup of polyester cloth with a few plastic braces. It could stay up in the air as long as there was wind.

Charles C. (“Cris”) Benton is a Professor of Architecture (emeritus) at UC Berkeley. He’s been attaching cameras to kites and taking pictures from the air for more than a quarter century now. He’s posted many thousands of his kite photographs to the web, exhibited prints in art galleries, and published an eye-popping book of kite images of the salt flats around San Jose, called Saltscapes. He’s a mentor to many about Kite Aerial Photography (KAP). He’s been a fan of Cesar Chavez Park for almost as long as it’s existed. Three years ago I had the pleasure of publishing here a collection of his historical photos of the park, some as early as 1996, see “A Kite’s Eye View: Cris Benton Aerial Photos.”

This weekend I had the honor of finally meeting Cris and his wife Claudia in person. I happened to be standing at the edge of the Burrowing Owl area with my camera spotting the owl when Cris walked by and introduced himself. A bit later he came by again towing the kite (or was the kite towing him?) and clicking the radio-control box in his free hand to tell the camera to fire the shutter. I thought at first the camera was mounted in the kite, but Cris showed me that the camera hung from a separate line about 50 feet below the kite. That suspension makes the camera more stable. The device is hung in a rig that Cris built that lets him change the lens angle and camera rotation by radio control, as well as fire the shutter. With his third hand he keeps the kite string taut.

Since the photographer can’t see what the camera sees, image composition requires a ton of experience and a bit of luck. Cris’ photographs of the park, as well as of other subjects, rise above the documentary mode to the level of art. He has a painter’s sense of composition. Check out the way he composes pathways like bold brushstrokes on a canvas. Savor the way he treats the Chavez/Huerta Homage Solar Calendar — a compelling spherical focus. This is a master at work. And if you didn’t know it was done from a fabric box held on a string, you’d swear it was done from an airplane.

Here’s a short selection of Cris’ recent Chavez Park photos. There are more on his Flickr site here and here.

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