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Geological Sciences’ Perry Flying High in the Sky Thanks to Grants

Published: July 1, 2009

Thanks to the CSULB Alumni Association, things have been up in the air for Bruce Perry since 2005.

A lecturer and alumnus in Geological Sciences, Perry recently received his second award from the Alumni Association’s annual grant program and once again used the funds to support his aerial photography project.

“This project is mainly for the benefit of my students and anybody else’s students,” said Perry of his aerial photographs of Southern California. “I do a lot of hiking and climbing in our local mountains and I take pictures wherever I go. Years ago I noticed that pictures from high altitudes gave me wonderful perspectives of things like the San Andreas Fault or the coastal ocean and I was able to use those in class. It occurred to me that if I could do aerial photography all over Southern California where we have tremendous and geological and coastal-ocean features that it could be a great resource to use in my classes.”

Bruce Perry
Photo by Bruce Perry
San Gabriel Mountains and San Gabriel River

His photos are used in context, so for example, when he lectures on the San Andreas Fault, he’ll display photographs clearly indicating where mountains have been uplifted or where streams are now offset by movement along the fault. It’s a great way to illustrate to his students exactly what he is talking about.

In addition, he uses photos to set up field trips, showing students photographs of where they will be going and what they can expect to see and learn. Sometimes he will print photographs so students have their own copies and, in turn, are expected to sketch in certain features, such as the direction an ocean current is moving, or a wave as it approaches and how it will affect the shoreline.

Perry applied for and received his initial Alumni Association grant in 2005. The $4,000 grant afforded him the opportunity to take four flights, during which time he took a couple of thousand photographs. Soon thereafter, he was granted a sabbatical leave through the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics to work on his Web site project.

“Once I take all the photographs, it takes me a long time to get them onto the Web site,” said Perry, noting that anyone can use them for free as long as it’s not for profit. “I have to go through each photograph and decide if it’s good enough or not, then I have to figure out the location and any feature I want to include in the name of the photograph. That takes a minute or so per photograph, and when you are looking at thousands of photographs, it really adds up. It’s just very time consuming.

“For the first grant, I was fortunate to get a sabbatical leave, and that entire semester instead of teaching I was in my office eight hours a day developing the Web site and working on the pictures, and that only took care of about half,” he added. “I just got caught up, and now with the new grant I’m going to take probably 2,000-3,000 more pictures, so I am looking at another seven to eight years’ project. It takes a long time to do it right.”

Perry’s most recent grant was in the amount of $3,500. With flight time costing $200 per hour he usually goes up in four-hour blocks, which he says is just about as long as you want to spend for one shoot.

Trying to cover all of Southern California on his flights, Perry to date has flown as far south as the Mexican border, out to the Salton Sea and as far north as the Carrizo Plain (about as far north as Bakersfield) where the San Andreas Fault cuts through a flat badlands area revealing many of the fault’s features. He has also flown out to the Palm Springs area and over Joshua Natural Tree Park.

“I would love to do Death Valley, as well as the central coast to San Francisco,” said Perry, “but that kind of takes me out of the realm of where I do most of my work for my classes and I doubt I would be able to get a grant for that — it would be kind of a stretch.”

The Cessna 172 aircraft Perry shoots from has enough room for three people, with a small seat in back, that he uses to put his photography equipment. And, while his talent as a photographer is evident through his photos, he is reluctant to refer to himself as much more than a good amateur photographer.

“Photography is strictly a hobby,” he said. “I am fortunate enough to have a couple of really good cameras (Nikon digital cameras — D70 and D90) and with good cameras even, a crummy photographer can take good pictures.”

While in the aircraft, Perry has limited space to work with, having to shoot through a side window that’s about two square feet with only the top 12 inches able to open. The constant force of the wind keeps the flap securely open, flat up against the aircraft’s wing to give him an unobstructed view.

“If I get the camera outside the slot, there is so much turbulence it shakes the camera, so I never reach beyond the window. I am always inside the plane,” said Perry. “After three to four hours it gets a little tiresome. When I get back on the ground I’m exhausted.”

Between his class schedule, the pilot’s availability and ever-changing weather conditions, Perry plans the best he can for his shoots.

“I always plan our route well ahead of time. I know exactly where I want to go and I have a good sense of the range we can cover in four hours. And the pilot I use (Jack Bragdon from the Long Beach Airport’s California Flight Center) is very competent. Even when the turbulence gets bad he knows what’s safe and what’s not,” said Perry, who has flown six times for the project, four with Bragdon. “We sometimes have to veer away from the course I want to follow, but I just go with his recommendations and try to incorporate as much as I can on any particular flight.”

Perry, who grew up in Oklahoma and came out to California to serve in the Marines, went back to Oklahoma and earned his degree in geology at Oklahoma State University. His favorite professor there was Stan Finney, now the chair of Geological Sciences at CSULB, who offered his former student a position at CSULB.

Bruce Perry
Photo by Bruce Perry
Point Fermin and Cabrillo Beach and the west end of Los Angeles Harbor

“He told me once I got my degree he could give me a master’s thesis; he had one all lined up and he needed somebody to do it. I came out to visit and decided this would be a good place for me,” said Perry, who has been on campus since 1987, first as a student, then as a lecturer since 1991. “I got my master’s here (1993) and they kept me on because I did a good job teaching lab and lecture classes, and I have been here ever since.”

Among the classes Perry teaches are Earth Science for Teachers, Introduction to Oceanography and Coastal Systems and Human Impacts.

“With his aerial photography project, Mr. Perry is developing an historical archive of the Southern California coastline that will be invaluable for evaluating both natural and human-induced changes over the coming decades and centuries,” said Finney. “Analysis of such changes can be the research projects of both faculty and students far into the future.”