This project seeks to visually explore and document significant historic industrial sites in Western Pennsylvania. I am particularly interested in how these abandoned sites have aged since their useful days, and how structures built during the rabid expansion of industry can still be found today, woven into the landscape of new development and industry.
My ultimate goal is to foster a new understanding of our industrial heritage through aerial photography, providing new perspectives on what we see every day.
As tools for aerial photography, helicopters and airplanes suffer from similar problems-- it is rarely safe to fly them below 500 feet, especially when flying near buildings and other structures. Depending on a project's size and budget, various solutions have been utilized to acquire aerial views: Photographers from the Historic American Engineering Record, while documenting the Homestead Works, climbed the water tower to get a view from above; cherry pickers and tall ladders work for many jobs; on other jobs, carbon-fiber poles up to 40' long can be useful. To get a higher perspective, between about 50 feet and 500 feet, requires a very different kind of technology.
For two years I've been working with kite aerial photography. Invented by a Frenchman in 1885, this method has been practiced on an off for over a century, but has only really taken off with the advent of inexpensive digital cameras. The advantage of KAP lies in the ability to get very close to a structure without risking damage to the camera or the structure itself. The only equipment required is a kite and a camera, suspended a few hundred feet below the kite.
We estimate that there are about a hundred serious KAP photographers worldwide, including roughly a dozen in the San Francisco Bay Area, where my interest in KAP began. The Bay area has the perfect combination of smooth winds and open spaces to perfect the craft; Pittsburgh, however, has neither of these, particularly near the sites I am interested in studying. Between hills and power lines, a different technology is required to work here.
I am currently developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for work in Pittsburgh. This will be a small helicopter-like device, about 2 feet square with four battery powered rotors. It will have a slew of sensors that permit level flight without input, allowing the operator to simply tell the UAV where to go, rather than controlling every aspect of its flight en route. This will permit photography of abandoned sites without risking harm to myself, the camera or the structures being studied.
In California, I focused my KAP efforts on documenting the Alameda Naval Air Station, which closed in 1993. I also studied various historic buildings in the Bay Area, including a condemned World War II office building. The upper floor of this building has collapsed in a fire, and no maintenance had been done to the wooden structure in decades. The three-story structure was covered in graffiti and slated to be torn down; without the ability to photograph it form above, it would not have been documented architecturally before it was burned to the ground by vandals in early 2009. These photos are collected here.
Here in Pittsburgh, I have approximately 40 sites on my short list to study. This list was compiled largely with the help of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.
The project is broken into three phases:
Phase One Continued research into these historic industrial sites, combining it with aerial surveys to assess the status and historic value of these sites. The end of this phase will whittle down the list of sites to 6 of primary interest.
Phase Two I will conduct detailed surveys, including high-resolution orthoimagery of the 6 sites, as well as close-up images of industrial details not visible from the ground.
Phase ThreeI will compile the photos and make them available to the public in several ways. This will include mapping from the imagery collected -- comparing them to the historic plat maps -- as well as producing a photography show, a book, and a website with the images and data freely available (licensed under Creative Commons)
The money raised here will cover various costs, including travel to and from the sites, but will primarily be put towards the development of the aerial photography platform.
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