The photographer’s striking aerial and ground-level images are part of the forthcoming book ‘Salt of the Earth’.

The Ravenswood salt ponds next to Meta’s Menlo Park headquarters. Courtesy Barbara Boissevain.

Environmental photographer Barbara Boissevain was shooting photographs from a helicopter over the Bay when she first saw the subject that she would choose to record over the next 12 years and compile a photography book about. 

While taking airborne photographs of the Lehigh Quarry and Cement Factory back in 2010, she looked over and saw the Peninsula’s salt ponds, the striking and vivid colors and shapes of a landscape shaped by human interference.

“They’re just hard to miss,” she says. “Depending on the time of year that you go up, sometimes (the colors are) orange and red and really vibrant. And then other times, they’re more subdued.”

She finished her shoot of the cement factory and decided to come back to the salt ponds. As she returned, she learned more about the environmental efforts that were underway to restore the wetlands surrounding the Peninsula. 

Her photography process throughout the past 12 years capturing images for the book, titled “Salt of the Earth,” has taken her from primarily airborne photography to ground-level photography, particularly during the pandemic. 

Photographer Barbara Boissevain. Courtesy Federica Armstrong.

“(The year) 2020 was really when I started photographing from the ground,” she says. In the process, she also donned waders and took underwater pictures. 

The Peninsula native and former Palo Alto resident worked to take photographs of multiple salt pond restoration projects at different phases, including the Ravenswood pond near Meta’s headquarters in Menlo Park and a separate project across the Dumbarton Bridge at Eden Landing in the East Bay. She also photographed the Palo Alto Baylands, which underwent its wetland restoration decades ago. 

“You can really see the biodiversity there,” she says.

Over the years, various projects to return industrial salt ponds to their former status as wetlands have taken place. More than 50,000 acres of former salt ponds throughout the Bay have been opened up to the tides to promote tidal marsh restoration, according to the EPA. One of the biggest projects has been the South Bay salt pond restoration, working to convert the former Cargill Salt Co. salt ponds at Ravenswood, Eden Landing and Alviso back into wetlands. 

In documenting the changes of the Peninsula’s wetlands and salt ponds over the past dozen years, she says she’s learned about the importance of wetlands in protecting bayside communities against the worst impacts of sea level rise. 

The project has turned into a visual record documenting the positive change that the Bay’s wetlands have undergone. And the restoration work is an all-too-rare-today environmental project that’s recorded a positive outcome: greater environmental resilience from sea level rise, the return of native wildlife and a growing landscape of green spaces. 

A grid of aerial salt pond photographs. Courtesy Barbara Boissevain.

As projects to restore the wetlands have progressed at the Ravenswood salt ponds, Eden Landing and the Palo Alto Baylands, she also has her own observations as a naturalist. For instance, she’s noticed a larger number of birds like white pelicans along the Bay and observed what she says is an exponential increase in the number of migratory birds traversing the Pacific Flyway through the Bay. The Pacific Flyway is a route that migratory birds travel north and south between Alaska and Patagonia, and the San Francisco Bay is considered a key stopover for those migratory birds, according to Peninsula Space Open Trust

She has also observed parts of the Bay becoming more green from the air. “You can really see these velvet ribbons of tidal wetlands that are coming in,” she says.  

Boissevain is currently working to get her 110-page hardcover photo book published. In the art book world, artists are often expected to help fund the publication process, she says. 

She’s working with German publisher Kehrer Verlag and collecting essays from authors and experts such as environmental journalist John Hart and Elliot White Jr., an assistant professor of Earth system science, to accompany her photographs. 

“Alien Saltscape III” by Barbara Boissevain. Courtesy Barbara Boissevain.

“It’s important to me because I don’t want this book just to be an art book. It has some texts that are important in terms of educating people about the restoration,” she says.

She’s launched a Kickstarter campaign and is writing grants to raise funds to support the book’s publication, and she’s motivated to get the book out not only to readers who are local naturalists, but also to a global audience.

“What this restoration represents is a model for other places that will deal with sea level rise …and wetlands restoration is a big topic right now. I think it’s the right moment for the book,” she says. “What it’s important for people to understand is that the built levees are at some point…going to be breached by sea level rise.” 

“Restored Wetlands IV” by Barbara Boissevain. Courtesy Barbara Boissevain.

Boissevain is scheduled to head to Germany this summer for a press check to make sure all of the color pages are being printed accurately. The book will then be released in Europe, followed by the U.S. release around October, she says. 

The photographer started her pursuit of art at a young age. As a child, she started taking art lessons at the San Jose Museum of Art, then classes at the De Young Museum in San Francisco around 14 years old. The weekend trips to San Francisco required her to take two or three buses just to get there from her hometown of Cupertino, she recalls. 

As a young person who was politically active, she became inspired by the work of Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado Júnior. In addition to being a photographer, Salgado has a Ph.D. in economics, and his photographs often reflect the realities of the workers he featured. 

“Restored Wetlands Aerial III” by Barbara Boissevain. Courtesy Barbara Boissevain.

“He really was able to translate his knowledge about the lives of these workers in different parts of the world to his photography and have this visual evidence,” she says. “When I saw that work, I realized, ‘Wow, I could have some of my politics in my art.'”

So she switched from studying painting to photography and didn’t look back. From there, she developed a passion for documenting environmental problems through her camera lens, driven in part by a personal knowledge of environmental damage that has happened in the Bay. 

It wasn’t until Boissevain was living in Mountain View, pregnant with her second daughter, that she learned that she was living on a Superfund site, she says. Later, her father, who had been an aerospace engineer at NASA Ames for 33 years, developed a rare form of cancer, which he died from. 

A grid of macro photographs taken underwater at a Peninsula salt pond. Courtesy Barbara Boissevain.

NASA Ames, located at Moffett Field on federal property, sits above underground aquifers contaminated with industrial solvents, including TCE, a known carcinogen, left by the area’s former semiconductor factories. While hazardous to human health, the toxic groundwater plume has been viewed as a manageable problem under a regimen of regular testing and cleanup administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Mountain View Voice

As the child of two parents involved in the early tech industry – her mom was a software engineer — she adds that it’s been hard to see the ways that the human population on the Peninsula also ebbs and flows over the years as the economy changes. 

“This is an industry that expands and contracts all the time. And…it makes it very hard on the population around it,” she says. 

The view from the pedestrian bridge at Meta’s Menlo Park headquarters. Courtesy Barbara Boissevain.

It’s something she’s thought about a lot as she’s lived in this region, something she contemplated as she made a reverse commute across the Dumbarton Bridge to a photography teaching job in the East Bay and as she traveled Bay Road near Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto, which is lined by recreational vehicles and encampments where people facing housing instability reside. 

“People are not able to keep up with these dramatic shifts,” she says. 

A Palo Alto resident for over a decade, she was an artist-in-residence with Palo Alto’s Cubberley Artist Studio Program, and her work has been exhibited at international solo and group exhibitions in the U.S and Europe. She recently relocated to Palm Springs, where she’s part of a studio community of about 30 artists.

“There’s more artists than engineers, which is a nice change for me,” she adds.  

People interested in learning more about Boissevain’s work or preordering her book can visit her website at barbaraboissevain.com.

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw reports food news and feature stories all over the Peninsula, from south of San Francisco to north of San José. Since she began working with Embarcadero Media in 2015, she's reported on everything from Menlo Park's City Hall politics to Mountain View's education system. She has won awards from the California News Publishers Association for her coverage of local government, elections and land use reporting.

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