Give this Cal professor a kite and a camera and he’ll change your perspective of the city.
By Joe Eskenazi
You could say professor Charles Crisp Benton looks down on the rest of us. And it would even be true – sort of.
With the push of a button, he can discern who’s wearing a toupee. He can tell who left the skylight open and see you when you hide on the roof. That’s because Benton is a master of the bygone art of kite photography, and he’s not likely to walk out of his front door without at least four of his homemade flyers tucked under his arm.
“They’re very much like golf clubs. If the wind is a little hard, you need a tough kite. And if it’s hardly blowing at all, you need a big, gossamer-like kite for low winds,” said the longtime U.C. Berkeley architecture professor.
During the weekdays…
Benton wraps his brain around the quandaries of thermal comfort assessment and the myriad challenges of building performance. Yet on the weekends, kite in hand, he’s looking at San Francisco-area structures from a different perspective.
“There’s a fascination in displacing our point of view. It was Thomas Campbell who said ‘Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,’ and I think there’s a great deal of charm in displacing oneself and seeing something from a vantage point you can’t achieve in a natural sense,” said Benton of his unusual photographic hobby (and you can gaze over a few of his mesmerizing images of S.F.-area environs and see what he’s talking about here).
Incidentally, Benton isn’t just taking photos of San Francisco et al., he’s also taking wind readings – albeit informally. He likes to attach massive, flowing tails to his kites so he can gauge how a building or buildings interact with the wind. And some local buildings don’t play nicely with the elements at all. The professor notes that Fox Plaza on Market and 9th Streets sometimes induces gusts of wind blustery enough to literally blow pedestrians down (perhaps its architect watched one too many Popeye cartoons).
In 2007, kite photography is an esoteric activity – and spooked denizens of a Daytona Beach apartment house did indeed call the police on him recently, suspecting he was a member of the Al-Qaeda kite-flying squad. But 100 years ago, the sight of a man with a massive kite built around an elaborate camera was par for the course, and some enterprising European photographers of the day even strapped miniature cameras to pigeons. You can see some stunning images of San Francisco in 1906 and 1909 – taken with a kite, not a flying rat – here.
And, speaking of San Francisco in smoldering ruins, one of the latest S.F. landscapes to be “interrogated” by Benton’s camera is Heron’s Head Park near Hunter’s Point. Now the home of an abandoned power plant and a great number of waterfowl unmolested by crazed European photographers, the industrial marshes are a regular boulevard of broken dreams when it comes to city planning.
Formerly open Bay water, the area was created out of landfill decades ago. In the 1960s, it was selected as the landing of a cross-bay bridge, but the project never came to be. And on some maps, the park is still listed as Pier 98, though that pier, too, never advanced beyond the planning stages.
“It’s always been abandoned. There are a series of failed buildings…taken over by nature. And from above, you can see how the new marshland has insinuated itself into the peninsula of debris,” said Benton.
Benton has been taking kite photographs of Bay Area buildings for a dozen years and he’s been studying them for more than twice that long. But the aspect of his camerawork he finds most thrilling is that he’s still never sure what he’ll capture when he clicks the shutter.
“I always try to think, ‘What does the camera see?’ and mentally compose a picture. And later I compare that picture to what’s captured by the camera. And it’s always different. There are so many little things you just don’t anticipate.”
Photos | Charles Crisp Benton