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Smile, you’re on kite camera

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Scott Dunn gets ready to fly a kite on a windy day in Coney Island in February. (Photo by Jessica Leber/CNS)

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Scott Dunn sets up his camera rig on the beach in Coney Island. (Photo by Jessica Leber/CNS)

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The Coney Island Polar Bears do jumping jacks on the beach to warm up for their weekly winter swim. A flying camera shows their formation. (Photo by Scott Dunn)

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Cris Benton photographs the vibrant-colored salt ponds of South San Fransicsco Bay from the sky. (Photo by Cris Benton)

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George Lawrence took the panorama, "San Francisco in Ruins," with a train of kites and a 49-pound camera shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1906. (Photo by George Lawrence, courtesy of the Library of Congress)

As strong winds kicked up sand at him and the temperature dropped toward freezing, Scott Dunn trudged to the ocean’s edge. His weight anchored the 250 feet of chord attached to a spear-shaped kite with a rainbow tail that surfed the sky. “Yeee-haw!” he shouted.

At the given signal, members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club of Brooklyn, N.Y., emerged from the nearby aquarium for their weekly winter dip into the Atlantic’s frigid waters. “We’re all crazies out here today,” Dunn commented to a curious onlooker.

Many swimmers did not notice the camera dangling above them, hoisted from the kite’s string, cradled in a mechanized frame, and controlled by a radio remote that Dunn juggled while wrestling with the kite. Within a few minutes, he snapped dozens of bird’s-eye view photos of the scene. The effort, he said, is worth it: “In one sense, the perspective is familiar, but, in another sense, you realize that this perspective is impossible in any other way.”

Dunn, a recreational kite flier who added a camera to his hobby last summer, is part of a growing global community of do-it-yourself kite-flying photographers. Kite aerial photography, or KAP, as it is known among enthusiasts, was first used in the late 1800s, before the invention of airplanes.

In recent years, as it’s become easier to trade tips online and cheaper to buy lightweight, high-quality cameras, KAP has grown in popularity. Three years ago, a KAPer created a group on the photo sharing website Flickr. Now, with over 700 members, it attracts newcomers in search of a fresh perspective.

“When I started, you wouldn’t know if there was anyone within 1,000 miles from you doing the same thing,” said Craig Wilson, 51, who combined his kite and photography interests 20 years ago and now uses KAP to take commercial photos featured in magazines. “Today you’ve got this network of people changing and communicating to really move this art form forward.”

Kite aerial photographers document everything from coastlines and buildings to crowd scenes and shadows. Because their pictures are taken closer to the ground than airplane or satellite photos, they reveal the unexpected details and geometries of what’s below.

Wilson recently photographed an emotional war veteran’s memorial event in his hometown in Madison, Wis. “I created a sort of God’s eye view of the scene,” he said. “I go to those things to see how people are connected to the earth.”

Cris Benton, an architecture and documentary photography professor at the University of California, Berkeley and longtime host of a KAP Web forum, typically captures the hidden details of built and natural environments, like the vibrant colors and intricate layout of the salt marshes and ponds of the San Francisco Bay.

“I’ve developed a notion that I’m interrogating the landscape. I try to imagine I’m up there where the camera is and imagine what it sees. I’m basically forming a visual hypothesis, and I’m able to check it,” he said.

The pastime rewards tinkering and experimentation. KAPers need a platform to cradle and steady the camera relative to the kite’s turbulence. Many use radio controls to remotely release the shutter and shift the camera. Others use automatic timers. Then, of course, one must learn to maneuver the kite, a trickier feat than it seems when there are any trees, power lines or buildings to dodge.

Though the first kite aerial photographers used burning fuses and even melting ice cubes to trigger shots, today kits make it easy, and cheap-–less than $100--for any neophyte to begin. Benton designed one rig made from rubber bands, Silly Putty and a disposable camera.

“It’s like golf or fishing,” said Wilson. “Some people just want to go out and have a little fun, and some people take it pretty seriously.”

The more serious side includes a small group of scientists, geographers and archaeologists who use KAP, along with blimps and balloons, to learn about the landscape. James S. Aber, a geologist at Emporia State University in Kansas, most recently used his kite to catalog the spread of bird-repelling cattails in Kansas’ Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands and wildlife refuge. “The land steward has told us that our pictures provided the most detailed view of what happens on their land,” he said.

A group from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tried KAP in the unlikeliest of places--the searing hot winds of Africa’s Sahel Desert. Guided by the same Web guides as hobbyists, they dissected a child’s radio-controlled plane, fashioned a wood rig, and flew a kite over a Sudanese refugee camp in eastern Chad. They were developing methods to estimate the ever-changing population of the camps without relying on outdated military plane photos. “I want to say we had a budget of less than $150. That’s kind of light for a government project,” said CDC geographer Ari Ponce Manangan.

In 1906, George Lawrence took perhaps the most famous kite photograph, using a train of kites to haul his hand-built 49-pound camera 1,000 feet above the San Francisco Bay to capture the aftermath of the earthquake that tore the city apart.

One hundred years later, KAPer Scott Haefner, with the help of the U.S. Geological Survey and a kite advocacy group called the Drachen Foundation, recreated the original shot with a modern camera. With bad weather, it took several tries, and they could only fly the kite half as high because of FAA regulations.

“It made you appreciate Lawrence so much,” said Ali Fujino of the Drachen Foundation. “It was finally that magical moment when all the skies cleared, the sun came out, and there was a little opening in the sky. We got the camera out and shot the picture.”

E-mail: jel137@columbia.edu