California Then and Now

By Chris Dixon

Of all the impressive surf-related websites out there, one of the most remarkable is only indirectly related to surfing. It’s This unbelievable database of images is the brainchild of a Central California photographer named Ken Adelman. Using his own camera, helicopter and programming know-how, Adelman catalogued the entire coast photographically from Oregon to Mexico in 2002/2003.

Recently though, Adelman discovered a cache of similar photos taken in 1972. By putting them alongside the more recent shots, he has created a truly astonishing resource for anyone interested in seeing how much the Golden State’s coast has changed in 30 years. Recently, I got Adelman on the phone and chatted with him about his brainchild. What follows is that interview and a few of California’s more famous coastal treasures — then and now. To check your favorite spot, log onto and key in a search term. Then click on time comparison. If you’re from The OC in particular, be prepared to have your jaw drop.

Chris Dixon: Ken, I guess you got a bit of unwanted publicity awhile back when Barbra Streisand tried to sue you over aerial shots that contained photos of her house.

Ken Adelman: Well, I’m not sure I’d call it unwanted publicity, she did give enormous help in publicizing the website with her lawsuit.

CD: How did that end up?

KA: The judge ruled against her and dismissed the suit. California has a special law usually referred to as the ‘anti slap law’. It basically is a lawsuit that’s filed that encumbers someone’s basic right to free speech. There’s an expedited procedure where you can get a court hearing before any discovery or deposition or expensive lawyering where you have to prove that the underlying action was free speech. If you succeed in that, then the person who sues you has to prove that they’re going to win. It would be very hard to argue that putting photos of the California coast on a website wasn’t fundamentally free speech.

CD: What was the sort of brainchild of this website? You took the photos right?

KA: Correct.

CD: Well, what did you see as the value in doing this?

KA: Actually, Mark Massara at the Sierra Club was a big part of that. My wife and I have been doing photography for the Sierra Club since early 97. It typically involved flying around some big distance, getting a picture, then flying home. Then they’d usually use only one picture. It wasn’t’ a very efficient way to photograph the coast, and also, there weren’t any before pictures. You could only see pictures of things that people had destroyed that Massara was fighting. Then one day, we said, that’s ridiculous, people haven’t called us before they’ve destroyed things. You need to photograph the whole coast. Then I thought, that’s ridiculous, what would that cost? It was before digital cameras were as good as film. Over the years, digital cameras got better and better.

CD: So when did you start, what method did you use, and how long did it take?

KA: Early 2002 and it basically took the whole year. Most of that was not actually doing anything but waiting for our schedules and the weather to cooperate. And we own our own helicopter.

CD: Well that makes it a lot easier eh?

KA: Yeah, you don’t have to wait for anyone else, you can just take off. So we went at between 30 and 60 knots and I shot with a Nikon D1x.

CD: It’s kind of amazing that no one has thought of this use for the web before, what are some of the things you’ve heard of people using this for? Besides obviously just looking at where you live.

KA: Well, a public website wasn’t part of the original idea. It just evolved because it was such an effective way to distribute them. The pictures on the server are about 80 gigabytes.

CD: Wow.

KA: Any one person only needs a tiny part of that, so the web is very effective for distributing data like this.

CD: So is it coastal geologists, and environmental groups using this? Now that you’ve got the past pictures, it’s just fascinating to look at. Especially living here in Orange County, which is so hugely developed.

KA: A lot of it is that people are curious. They want to look at their house or neighborhood. The 72 stuff is brand new to the site. I think it remains to be seen what people are going to do with it.

CD: It seems there’s a pretty obvious conservation use if you’re arguing against some coastal development and can say, well, let’s take a look through the years at this piece of coast. Here’s what it might look like if this is done. I mean my wife was literally moved to tears as she looked at old pictures of Dana Point where she grew up. She couldn’t believe the difference.

KA: Certainly conservation is the main motivation. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do to people, move them to tears. I’m only trying to do that by showing them the truth. As much as my motivations on the site were environmental, I try to minimize that on the site.

CD: It’s very scientifically arranged. And certainly doesn’t seem to take any political point of view.

KA: It doesn’t need to.

CD: Where did the 1972 photos come from?

KA: George Armstrong was a photographer for the California Dept of Boating and Waterways. He took these pics in 72. He did it again in 79. And a copy of those slides was given by him when he retired to a professor, Gary Grigg at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It was believed at the time that this was the only known one that survived. Although we found out just last week that the Coastal Commission had a copy all along and never told anyone about it.

CD: No kidding.

KA: It’s also interesting because there are 16 slides missing from our 5800. Just ones taken out for no particular reason. We’re trying to get those.

CD: Why do you think the Coastal Commission never told anyone they had these?

KA: Nobody asked. They used them internally.

CD: Have you gotten feedback from this?

KA: Well they think it’s great because although they had copies, they never had them indexed like this. They had slides in loose leaf binders at one location. We’ve also done extensive restoration of these photos. The color dyes change over time. They’ve faded. I don’t know if the others fared better or worse.

CD: Well in terms of your own personal feelings when you look at any particular stretch of coast? Anywhere that just really takes you aback?

KA: It’s interesting that most of the damaging from development has occurred since the passing of the Coastal Act — which was designed to protect the coast. But we’ve also had a huge population increase.

CD: We were looking at Salt Creek in 1972, and the construction that was already happening. Dana Point Harbor was being built, and you could see the terraced hillsides at Dana Strands. But you look at the eastern side of the PCH and all of that land was just ranchland — rolling hills. It was just astonishing to look at the difference. I guess there are a lot of spots like that.

KA: I’ve seen a lot of that.

CD: Did you do this database where you can key in the name of a place?

KA: That’s a great thing about the web. The public did it. If you see a place that’s not captioned, you can add your own to it.

CD: That’s amazing.

KA: I’ve gotten almost 6100 captions from the public. Most apply to the 02 stuff. So 2 of every 5 photos are captioned.

CD: I guess another obvious use for this would be in examining beach erosion. Take a look at a place like Encinitas, which has had huge problems with this.

KA: There are a lot of things that this photography doesn’t do that well. The one thing it shows well is three dimensional structure, so you can definitely check this out.

CD: Is there any other set of photos from before 1972.

KA: I know there are some super high res straight down vertical shots. The film is like, nine inches by 250 feet. We can’t even imagine how to scan that. It would be extremely expensive. We’re working on the 79 photos now and are about halfway done. I expect they’ll be finished later this year. I’ve also heard of an 87 set. I’d like to fill in with that — the gap between 79 and 02 and then extend it back further.

CD: What’s your motivation to do this?

KA: It’s a labor of love.

CD: You’re a software guy from Silicon Valley originally right?

KA: I like to refer to myself as a ‘self-unemployed computer geek’.

CD: Have you heard of a survey like this anywhere else?

KA: The state of Washington did a recent survey of their coast but it’s not as high-res as our stuff. It’s online. I’d like to do some other areas, but for me just California data may become m life’s work — or burden. I’d also love to do Vancouver Island.

CD: Why is that?

KA: I don’t want to do it for the people of Vancouver as much as for the people of California — so they can see what it can be like when you don’t regulate something. They have things like, people just building their own concrete ramps to the ocean on the beach. Railroad tracks for boat launches on the beach. It’s a very pretty island, but some places look like inner city ghettos as you walk down the beach.

CD: So despite the Coastal Commission’s flaws and complaints, you think that when we look at the coast now, it could be far worse.

KA: Oh yeah. That’s pretty clear from looking at other places in the world where they don’t have strong laws.

CD: Do you think this site will have an influence over how development proceeds now that you can get this data out to so many people affected by decisions?

KA: It already is. And it’s changing the way that the Coastal Commission does business. It’s no longer acceptable not to have aerial photography when you submit an application for development or alteration. Now you’re expected to.

CD: Well, it’s an interesting piece of work. One of the more interesting I’ve ever seen on the web. Thanks a lot for the time.

KA: Thank you.