Saltscapes: The Kite Aerial Photography of Cris Benton

Surprising and sublime

On approach to SFO, a passenger glancing out the window will see the vivid patchwork of the South Bay’s salt evaporation ponds. After a century of industrial salt production, over ten thousand acres of this once vast marshland are now being restored to their natural state. Using a kite to fly a radio-controlled camera to heights of up to three hundred feet, photographer Cris Benton brings this much-overlooked part of the San Francisco Bay into sharp focus, highlighting one of the greatest landscape transformations underway in America.

With results as unexpected as they are alluring, Benton explores the “exuberant, otherworldly” South Bay salt ponds and marshes in various states of restoration. He reveals saturated colors, subtle textures, and vivid patterns not discernible from the ground. We linger on the lacy elegance of salt mounds; the stark beauty of a rail line running through ripples of bay water; the softness of willets in flight. Among the most enchanting are images that could be mistaken for Mark Rothko paintings, until closer examination reveals bulldozer tracks across muddy stretches of bay bottom.

Benton’s images allow us to slip our earthly bonds and see the world from new heights, his aerial views offering a fresh perspective on familiar landscapes. Surprising and sublime, Saltscapes can be enjoyed equally as a collection of art photography and a portrait of ecological transformation and resilience.

Reviews

“Benton has explored the South Bay with a deft eye and a historian’s ardent curiosity. His images may be as abstract as mid-century paintings, but they double as aerial archeology, revealing the borders of former evaporation pools, a defunct rail line, and the remains of cabins inhabited at the turn of the last century. The book presents a fascinating overview of the evolution of the local salt industry, including the origins of the conservation movement Save the Bay, and the encouraging collaboration between the Cargill salt plant and wetland restoration efforts.”
Wired

“Benton's striking photographs visually engage our spatial sensibilities and illustrate exciting, fresh perspectives of a largely unexplored American territory in restorative transformation.”
Shelf Awareness, starred review

About the Author

Cris BentonCris Benton is a retired professor of architecture and former department chair at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was engaged in teaching and research in the Building Science Laboratory as well as a program of post-occupancy building case studies. His kite aerial photography in the South Bay began during a sabbatical year spent as artist in residence at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and it has continued under special use permits from the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The resulting images documenting the salt ponds have been shown at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Exploratorium, and the Coyote Point Museum, as well as conferences and art galleries. Benton’s aerial images have been used by over one hundred nonprofit agencies.