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.