Cris Benton's boyhood kites didn't fly far or long before trees and telephone poles mangled them.
He's much more careful raising his kites these days. The high-flying, tough nylon and carbon fiber poles carry his digital cameras, along with his hopes of exposing people to a new point of view to understand and enjoy the landscapes around them.
Benton, a University of California at Berkeley architectural professor, is part of the reemergence of kite-assisted photography, which uses cameras attached to kite lines.
"You can see details of the landscape you just can't get when you're standing on the ground," said Benton, who started kite photography a decade ago after seeing a woman practice it in the Berkeley Marina.
In his latest project, Benton is photographing San Francisco Bay marshes and shorelines as part of a team backed by the San Francisco Exploratorium that is out to interpret and record current and past uses of the shoreline.
The National Endowment for the Arts kicked in about half of the $12,000 cost of the Hidden Ecologies project.
Kite photography flourished in the late 18th and early 19th century, but died out when the airplane created a more convenient way to take pictures.
Early kite photographers had to affix a slow-burning fuse to their camera shutter, and then fly the camera long enough to get a single shot.
In the past decade, tough modern kites and digital photographs, capable of sending images instantly around the world via Internet, have lured dozens of people around the world to take up the activity.
Many do it for fun, but scientists are finding practical applications.
Kites are cheaper and more convenient than balloons, Benton said. Kites also don't cause the air turbulence generated by a helicopter that can obliterate details of water and soil surfaces and plant cover.
Airplanes don't hover, and they're not a grassroots tool anyone can use, he added.
Scientists have used kite photography to study movement of the San Andreas Fault in Central California, seaweed growth near Okinawa Island and growing conditions in Nebraska cornfields.
To take pictures, Benton places his camera in a cradle fixed to a kite line, and lets the kite fly.
He remotely snaps photos as he walks to steer the kite-mounted camera over the terrain he wants to shoot.
Benton describes his kite photography as part art, part science and part recreation.
His photos have captured scenic patterns of ocean waves, channels through marshes, shadows of bicyclists on Mount Diablo, and the sharp lines of buildings on the University of California at Berkeley campus and in French towns.
The photos also leave him yearning to discover uses and connections between parts of the landscape.
"You can't take the photos without them raising questions," Benton said. "I call it interrogating the landscape."
In a recent trip to the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge in Fremont, Calif., for the Exploratorium project, Benton used his camera to scan marshes for remnants of old buildings, pipelines, levees, channels and piers.
He later will study historical maps and writings to match structures to clues in his photos.
The water and mud surface looked flat and glassy from the ground. But his bird's-eye view captured vivid colors, deep textures and patterns in marshes once divided into ponds for evaporating and collecting salt.
"You can see it's not just mud in a field," Benton said.
He flew a 14-foot-wide kite, one of four he keeps for varying wind conditions.
Benton could use a monitor to see the images prior to shooting them, but he chooses not to.
"I prefer to imagine what it would like if I were up there," he said. "I learn a lot that way."
When the winds kicked up, he reeled in the kite to prevent the winds from destroying it and sending the camera crashing to earth. Taking apart the kite, he stuffed it in a backpack.
"Kites never flew for me very well when I was a kid," Benton said. "Now they give me a new portal to view the landscape."