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A photographer's bird's-eye view of 'Traffic!'

May 29, 2009 | 12:00 pm

Bennychantraffic Just about every Angeleno has had mid-gridlock fantasies of pushing a magic red button on the dashboard, beaming up over the 405 and escaping the overcrowded network of freeways, underpasses and interchanges. For five years, architectural photographer Benny Chan did something similar, hovering over L.A.'s transportation abomination in planes and helicopters, documenting it all with a self-made 14-pound, $25,000 camera.

Chan's 8-by-10-foot prints, which will be on exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art starting Sunday, aim to demonstrate the unsustainable development that has come to define our city's identity -- and our daily lives. The SCI-Arc grad took a few moments to discuss his high-tech gear and his project, appropriately named “Traffic!”

Tell me about the camera you built to execute such large prints.

I custom-made the camera along with some help from a fellow who went to MIT and worked at Hughes. He actually helped build the B-2 bomber. The camera itself weighs 14 pounds. The electronics [for the shutter] were taken from a space shuttle from NASA used in the '90s. It took around eight months to build. It has a 300-millimeter lens and can go to an infinity focal length.

Do you have a history of tinkering with technology?

I grew up playing with remote-control cars and helicopters. I've built several cameras before, but this was the most extensive and expensive project.

What are some challenges you faced while photographing?

We used a plane and a helicopter, and the plane was most difficult. The LAX area is really hard to get to because of air traffic rules. We had to circle around and wait. Another problem is that I couldn't shoot in winter because of the lighting. That meant I could only shoot from April to early June. Who knew there was a traffic season?

What was the most shocking revelation you had while shooting “Traffic!”?
Really seeing how long the backup is. The distance is incredible. Where did we get all these cars? People are traveling two hours a day -- that's not quality of life. Driving is so antisocial.

What do you think L.A. planners could do to help solve this issue?
I grew up in Hong Kong, and they did a great job of mass transit. But it was all because of high-rise density and central community areas around the transportation. Bergamot Station is a perfect example. If they can combine restaurants and art, people will be encouraged and attracted to go there on the trains.

What sort of societal impact do you hope your images will bring?
Honestly, I'm not that political. There's another side to this too, that it is beautiful. But I do hope people will realize that this is not sustainable.

-- Krista Simmons

Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena. 'Traffic!' opens Sunday; ends Sept. 20. Hours: noon- 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. $7; $5, seniors and students; free the first Friday of the month. Info: (626) 568-3665.

Above: Benny Chan's photograph of the 10 and 110 interchange, titled "Tr11_20."

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