In 1979 Steinmetz got the idea of photographing deserts while traveling through 17 African countries over a 28-month period. This real-life schooling was imperative to his growth both as a person and as a photographer. He later supplemented the field knowledge gained on his first of many trips to Africa with a degree in geophysics from Stanford University.
A regular contributor to National Geographic and GEO magazines, he has explored subjects ranging from the remotest stretches of the Sahara to the virtually unknown tree people of Irian Jaya to Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
DPP: How do you go about choosing a project?
George Steinmetz: I really like to go to places that are not that well known, such as desert areas, such as Ladakh in India and the Algerian Sahara. That really excites me. Some years ago, when I was doing these flights over the Sahara, I came up with the idea of photographing all the world’s deserts, just picking them off opportunistically, one at a time. As I thought I was getting down to the end of my list, someone would suggest a place that I hadn’t thought of. That project finished last fall when I photographed Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas. There are a lot of ways to define desert. A lot of people do it by precipitation versus evaporation. There are a lot of places that I go that have very little data. I went by a simpler definition. I did it by precipitation. I went to places that got less than 10 centimeters, that’s about four inches of rain a year. When you get to those environments, you feel like you’re on another planet. They look really austere and weird. In the Himalaya, in Ladakh, you have these valleys between the mountain ranges that look more like a moonscape. They get virtually no rainfall. It’s as much a desert as Egypt is with the Nile. Sometimes, I’m approached to do a story because of my ability to fly over areas that are inaccessible by conventional aircraft. For instance, I did a story for National Geographic recently on rising sea levels that the Geographic came up with that’s coming out this September.
DPP: How did you come up with the idea to do aerial photography using what, at first glance, appears to be a motorized lawn chair with a parachute?
Steinmetz: It was basically out of desperation. I had wanted to photograph the Sahara since I was a young man. I had dropped out of college for a while and hitchhiked across the Sahara. It occurred to me at that time, even without a lot of photographic experience, that the way to capture the beauty and the expanse of a place like the Sahara was from the air. Years later, I passed through there on a gig for National Geographic and met a pilot who had a motorized two-seat hang glider. He said we could transport it around the desert in the back of a pickup truck. He would pilot and I would take pictures. I proposed the story to the Geographic and they accepted it. I called up the guy and said, "I’ve got good news!" He responded that he had another job and couldn’t do it. So, I had to find a solution. I had gotten National Geographic to buy into the concept of how important it was to see the desert from the air. I knew intuitively that you would be able to see these fantastic patterns—the shapes of the dunes and the rocks and the camel tracks.
DPP: Couldn’t you use a traditional airplane to get your aerial shots?
Steinmetz: My proposal was to work in Niger and Chad, and there really aren’t any aircraft that you could hire there for this sort of thing. In these remote areas, there aren’t any airfields. Even if there were, Cessnas are good for high-altitude pictures, but when you get down low and you’re going by at the minimum speed, everything is still going by too fast. The slow Cessnas have a fixed landing gear and a wing strut that you have to shoot around. Basically, you can’t shoot with anything wider than a 24mm on a 35mm full-frame camera, and you only have one angle of view. I fly at one speed only, and that’s 28 miles an hour. I have an unrestricted 180-degree view. I love using wide angles when I’m flying because over deserts you get a great sense of the expanse with them. We go around by truck. If we come across a camel caravan, we can follow them, camp, then take off just before sunrise and I’ll get them on the move in the morning. With most aerial photography, you only see the patterns of things. From my aircraft, I can see what the people are doing. There’s a little more humanity or life in these more intimate photos. While I can usually gain as much as 6,000 feet on a flight, I find it most effective at 100 to 500 feet above ground. This gives me a more intimate view of the landscape, and as I’m piloting it myself, I can search out the precise point in the sky to visualize a picture.
DPP: How did you come across the actual apparatus?
Steinmetz: It came along in my moment of need. I was talking with William Langewiesche who had written a wonderful book about the desert. He told me I should get a hold of a friend of his in France who was into motorized paragliding. I looked into it; it looked dangerous, but interesting. So, I contacted his friend Francois Lagarde and he told me how long it would take to train and how much it would cost. I asked him if he would be willing to go with me to Africa for a month. We bought identical aircraft and I trained and we did the trip. This was in 1997.
DPP: How does your aircraft work?
Steinmetz: It consists of three components—the wing of a paraglider, which is similar to an aerobatic parachute, a backpack-mounted motor and a single-seat harness that ties the three pieces together. It’s launched by laying the paraglider out on the ground behind me like a kite, and with the motor on idle, I run into the wind and the wing pops up like a kite. Once it’s above me, I give it full throttle. You basically run your ass off until you’re airborne. I only need a clear area a little larger than a basketball court for takeoff and landing. I steer with a combination of weight-shift and pulling on the Kevlar lines attached to its trailing edge. These act like flaps on a conventional airplane. The whole thing packs up into three bags weighing less than 72 pounds. Upon arrival at a location, I spend a few hours assembling and tuning the motor. The best time to take off is at su
nrise. You have beautiful light and the air is very calm. With 10 liters of gasoline mixed with two percent oil, I can fly for two to three hours. If the motor quits, I can glide to the ground with a 7:1 glide ratio. I never fly over an area where I can’t make an emergency landing. I once landed in the ocean while photographing whales and did get dragged across a dry lake in a sandstorm. When I haven’t flown for six or eight months and the first time I go up, I think, "Holy shit! What am I doing up here?" But I think that fear keeps me alive.
DPP: How high have you gone?
Steinmetz: I’m finding if I have no thermal lift I can gain 5,000 or 10,000 feet on a flight. On my first flight with Francois, I wanted to photograph the volcanic crater Arakao. I got up about 5,500 feet with an 18mm lens to get the picture.
DPP: What photo equipment do you go up with?
Steinmetz: The best for me are zooms. My favorite is a 24-105mm. I’ll often fly with a 16-35mm, as well. When I used film, I used to frequently take a second body and often that second body was a panoramic camera like the Hasselblad XPan. Now, with digital, I don’t have to do that, the sensors are so amazing. I’m now using the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Since the motor to power my paraglider is on my back, I do get a decent amount of vibration, so I try to shoot at 1/500th. With image stabilization, I can get down to 1/250.
DPP: Some of your aerial shots include animals such as the camels casting long shadows in Oman. How do they react to you?
Steinmetz: Since I’m relatively quiet and I don’t create a lot of rotor wash, I don’t intimidate the animals. There’s a shot I did of flamingos taking flight over an orange-colored lake in the Alto Plano area of Bolivia. It’s that color because there are a lot of mineralized springs that the algae feeds on, and the algae turns color, and the flamingos are feeding on the algae. So, you have these thousands of flamingos and a skyline of strata volcanoes. Flamingos are usually extremely skittish. I’ve tried to photograph flamingos in Iran and Africa, and usually they take off when you’re within a kilometer of them. But these Bolivian flamingos weren’t for some reason, perhaps because they don’t have any aerial predators or terrestrial predators. I was able to get within 50 feet of them. It was challenging to fly up there because these lakes were at something like 14,000 feet.
DPP: The resulting photographs are abstracts, yet they still retain a context.
Steinmetz: That’s what I like to do with this aircraft that you can’t do any other way; these wide-angle pictures where you get to see something up close, but you get this tremendous context. It gives you this instantaneous sense of place. From a plane you can’t fly that low, and you have the propeller and the window and all that other stuff in the way.
DPP: From the air, you really must be able to see man’s mark on the environment.
Steinmetz: I do see the effects of bad land use and bad farming practices. I think we’re seeing a perfect storm in some areas such as in western China, where there’s this rapid growth in population and an increase in the quality of life. They’re exploiting their land to a heavier degree than they have in the past. They’re planting in areas they hadn’t planted in and they’re grazing more animals than they used to, so they’re overusing the land. You see cypress trees that have stood for thousands of years in the middle of the Sahara, but there are no baby trees because they can’t germinate and propagate. Or, you’re out in the middle of the Sahara, and you see rock art of the hippo. You see all this evidence of long-term climate change.
DPP: Do you write your own stories for the Geographic?
Steinmetz: I’ve done some limited writing for the magazine. Sometimes they want a piece with the photographer’s voice. For my first piece on the Sahara, I wrote about my experience flying with the paraglider. I also wrote a story about a first contact I had in New Guinea. There was no writer with me. We got attacked by these guys with bows and arrows. We had a local that helped us smooth things over.
Upon arrival at a location, I spend a few hours assembling and tuning the motor. The best time to take off is at sunrise. You have beautiful light and the air is very calm. With 10 liters of gasoline mixed with two percent oil, I can fly for two to three hours. If the motor quits, I can glide to the ground with a 7:1 glide ratio.
DPP: Were you on terra firma for that story?
Steinmetz: Mostly. I did some work with ropes because these people were living in tree houses. We used ropes to get up there. I had a guy with me who was an expert in putting ropes in trees. He had a crossbow and a lead-tipped arrow with a reel of fishing line that he fired over a strong tree limb, then dragged up a heavier climbing rope. Once the ropes were set, we put on Jumar ascenders and climbed the rope.
DPP: Did you grow up climbing trees?
Steinmetz: I grew up in Beverly Hills. Many people there were more interested in climbing the social ladder than a tree ladder. I preferred the trees.
DPP: What are you doing in terms of your fine-art prints?
Steinmetz: Anastasia Gallery in New York represents my work. We’re doing editions in three sizes on Ilford Gallery Smooth Pearl paper—17×22 inches in editions of 10, 30×40, also in editions of 10, and 43×59 inches in editions of five. When you stand in front of the big prints of the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, you feel like you’re just falling into the landscape.
You can see more of George Steinmetz’s photography on his website at www.georgesteinmetz.com.