George Steinmetz: Up in the Air

Steinmetz in his 100 lb. "flying lawn chair."
Steinmetz in his 100 lb. "flying lawn chair."

His view to the desert below, hanging from the Kevlar lines of his motorized paraglider, can be so ethereally beautiful in early morning light that photographer George Steinmetz may for just a second forget that his life hangs on the whim of an uncertain gust of wind.

Steimetz after paraglider crash in China.
Steimetz after paraglider crash in China.

The above photo, a bandage covering seventeen facial stitches, is the record of Steinmetz’s encounter with a few trees at the edge of the Gobi Desert.

George Steinmetz’s life in nature and landscape photography began shortly after his graduation from Stanford with a major in Geophysics. He set out on a more than two-year hitchhiking tour of Africa; it was earthbound but gave him hints of the harsh beauty of sere lands that he was soon to explore from the air for National Geographic. Here is how he describes his African safari:

The first time I traveled through Africa, as a 21-year-old hitchhiker carrying a borrowed 35mm camera across the Sahara, all the action seemed to be happening on the ground. Chad had no government but plenty of guns; gasoline was sold in green wine bottles. The tracker I hired in what was then the Central African Empire had followed the BaAka Pygmy custom of chipping his front teeth into sharp points, giving him the fearsome grin of a piranha. I spent a three-day train trip to Khartoum amid passengers who preferred to ride for free atop the arched roof; the tricky part was sleeping perpendicular to the cars so that we didn't roll off in the middle of the night. Something extraordinary always seemed to lie just over the horizon in Africa, and I dreamed of being able to see the continent's patterns unfold from the sky.

Like topographic photographers before him, such as William Garnett and Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Steinmetz began shooting from a plane, a Cessna with the door removed, but soon realized that he was almost always too high and flying too fast to capture the subtle, transient images he sought. Smithsonian staff writer Abigail Tucker in the magazine’s Jan. 2009 issue describes his solution, begun as a homegrown experiment:

The children playing at the elementary school across the street from George Steinmetz's house didn't miss a beat when, grunting in his driveway, he strapped on his flying machine. His outfit was pure New Jersey dad—loafers, blue jeans and a fleece vest—but his hair was wild and the shadows beneath his eyes were as dark as the volcanic craters he likes to photograph from the sky. Steinmetz had been up until 3 that morning dangling from the rafters of his garage to test his new motorized paragliding harness… The motor caught, and suddenly the clipped grass of Steinmetz's front yard rippled like the African savanna. Even now, the kids didn't look over: perhaps they mistook the roar for a leaf blower or lawn mower or some other source of suburban hubbub.

Steinmetz describes the device as “a flying lawn chair.” Still, it’s a rather formidable device to haul into the world’s harshest deserts in four-wheel drive vehicles already loaded with provisions and survival supplies. The resulting closely observed photographs reveal details not to be seen from helicopters or airplanes.

Two passing camel caravans in the Sahara.
Two passing camel caravans in the Sahara.
Saharan salt pans.
Saharan salt pans.

A one-minute Nat. Geo. Video shows Steinmetz rigging and launching his paraglider in the early morning desert light of Fezzan, Libya.

Steinmetz’s journeys have taken him into the deserts of more than two dozen countries over more than twenty-five years. Besides the crash in China, he has been thrice arrested in Iran as a suspected spy, and has launched his flying machine in third world countries without permits and in the face of certain refusals. Somehow, the improbable tale of his mission to skeptical listeners has sustained him in environments fraught with political tension. One atypical photo is of nude sunbathers on the Israel shore of the Dead Sea. You can see the shadow of the paraglider wing.

Israeli nude bathers at the Dead Sea.
Israeli nude bathers at the Dead Sea.

Steinmetz says, “I got arrested for taking this picture. I get arrested a lot.”

His first book was “African Air,” published in 2008 by Abrams. In his introduction, Steinmetz lays out his first Saharan trip by road at age twenty-one; it includes rich anecdotal material, postcards, personal photos, and begins with this sentence.

A friend of mine from college used to say that every great idea occurs to you before the age of thirty, and after that it’s just recycling.

But that one “great idea” kept expanding and only a year later he published “Empty Quarter,” an aerial portrait of one of the most forbiddingly deserted places in the world: the Rub’ al-Khali, the 250.000 square mile desert in the peninsula of Saudi Arabia.

Rub al Khali dunes and star shaped stable dune.
Rub al Khali dunes and star shaped stable dune.

The book also includes many ground-based images of man’s marks on the landscape. Its publication also served as a launch for the even greater plan of continuing to photograph the world’s deserts, which led him to North and South America, to Asia, even to Antarctica and its frozen sand dunes. “Desert Air” is the most recent and largest format book Steinmetz has made. Many images are double paged, measuring 13x20 inches.

Wadi Hazar, Yemen.
Wadi Hazar, Yemen.
Algerian Sahara near Timimoun.
Algerian Sahara near Timimoun.

This work may be his life’s summation, as the photographer is now 55 and he must have exhausted the world’s deserts as subject, not to mention exhausting the proverbial cat’s nine lives.

These brief video promos can serve as no more than introductions to the wealth of images and tales that is George Steinmetz. Fortunately, there is a 20-minute video of him from National Geographic speaking to a live audience with his characteristic passion and energy. He reveals the history of his peripatetic explorations starting with a thumb stuck out to passing traffic in Algeria. Watching his video presentation, you can begin to understand why he is a man who has been able to talk his way through most potentially fractious encounters in the world’s wildest places:

Watching Steinmetz in front of an audience, he concentrates on the ethnography and geography of his images. Not once does he talk of aesthetics or of the artistry of his work. He is that quintessential American artist—one who does not call himself “artist.” The most reflective and inward turn he has, may be here.

I'm a photographer who flies, not a pilot who takes pictures. I do this kind of flying because it gives me the opportunity to photograph remote areas in a way they have never been seen before. And from my vantage point in the sky, there is always more to explore, to question, and, ultimately, to understand.

Steinmetz with two Kenyan Masai at Lake Natron.
Steinmetz with two Kenyan Masai at Lake Natron.

Next: A new perspective on John Ford: the tale of  a purloined beer glass. 

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