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Above the Bay: Steve Proehl, Aerial Artist

By Erin Carlson

At first glance, the images resemble a trippy alien landscape or a Richard Diebenkorn painting — something you might see in a science fiction movie or the SFMOMA, not real life. They’re the work of the celebrated aerial photographer Steve Proehl, who’s forged a long career shooting vast swaths of America by helicopter. While his noisy expeditions have resulted in hearing loss, the view from above is nothing short of serene. Proehl’s ‘copter landscapes of New York, New England and Cape Cod became books; here in the Bay Area, the Sebastopol resident has captured the salt pond ecosystem, pictured on these pages.

Steve Proehl illustrated by Iris Lei.

From up in the air, San Francisco Bay’s salt ponds are a curious sight: pops of color accessorizing the coast in shades of muddy green, yellow ochre or pink depending on the salinity of the water. Pinky-red is the saltiest, signaling the final stretches of an evaporation process that creates salt to be harvested by Cargill Inc., the agricultural conglomerate. Its salt ponds cover roughly 8,000 acres.

In 2003, the government acquired marshland from Cargill as part of an environmental restoration effort that doubles as a solution for sea-level rise. “The salt marsh patterns are natural colors, although the shapes are manmade,” says Proehl. “The unique combination of these two properties does not often result in such a brilliant spectacle. Man’s interference in natural landforms is rarely positive.”

Artistically, Proehl prefers the “patterns that are dominated with red. The contrasting yellowish boundaries define a painterly composition.”

He’s built his portfolio of bird’s-eye views stretching back 35 years. NorCal is a photographer’s dream, he says, and the pleasant weather allows him to fly year-round. (The proximity to fine local wines doesn’t hurt either.) Compared with a drone photographer, “my peripheral vision picks up all kinds of visual cues,” he explains. “The drone operation is limited by the field of view and a much slower response to camera direction, angles and lens zooming.” Why dispatch a drone when you can send Steve Proehl to snap the best shots?

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