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  • May 21, 2014

George Steinmetz’s Eye From the Sky

Author
Alexa Keefe

What is it like strapping yourself into the equivalent of a leaf blower, getting a running start, then taking off into the air with a camera in your hand?

“You have 180-degree horizontal and vertical visibility and you’re going about 27 or 28 miles per hour. You don’t need a plexiglass windscreen in front of you. It’s kind of like you’re flying around on the edge of a spoon. For pictures, it’s the bomb.”

Red peppers are laid out to dry in the desert after being harvested near Baicheng, Xinjiang, China.
Red peppers are laid out to dry in the desert after being harvested near Baicheng, Xinjiang, China.
Cemeteries and camps of Afari nomads sit amidst lava flows partially buried in clay near the Awash River Delta in Ethiopia.
Cemeteries and camps of Afari nomads sit amidst lava flows partially buried in clay near the Awash River Delta in Ethiopia.

The first time George Steinmetz took his flying machine (a motorized paraglider manufactured in Germany, to be precise) out for an assignment, it was in the Sahara Desert to photograph a volcanic crater about eight miles in diameter, which required he fly up to almost 6,000 feet. “I took off at sunrise, just when there was enough light to see, and I just went full throttle for about an hour until I basically ran out of gas,” he tells me during a recent phone call. “I was really nervous up there … It was really quite petrifying. And I thought wait a minute, I’m up here, I’m really determined to get this picture, so I better take the f-ing picture! If you’re going to die, at least get the picture first. Don’t die for nothing!”

The legs of photographer George Steinmetz dangle from the harness of his motorized paraglider as he tries to gain over 5,600 feet while photographing an extinct volcano in the Sahara, his first assignment using the motorized paraglider.
The legs of photographer George Steinmetz dangle from the harness of his motorized paraglider as he tries to gain over 5,600 feet while photographing an extinct volcano in the Sahara, his first assignment using the motorized paraglider.

He found that once he focused on taking pictures, he stopped thinking about dying and calmed down. “When I get up there,” he says, “I find whenever I get into a situation, taking pictures is very helpful because it helps me think about things I can control.”

Watch a video of Steinmetz taking off to photograph the Afar Depression in Ethiopia for the January 2012 issue of National Geographic.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether such moments are a source of exhilaration on the level of the thrill-seeking seen in adventure sports, or an inhibition.

Neither. “I fly for pictures,” he says. “If I don’t have a camera I don’t go flying. If I can get the place better from a hill, or a helicopter, or a plane I’ll do that. There are some kinds pictures you can’t get any other way…I am a cold-blooded pragmatist in the field.”

Steinmetz has had his share of unscheduled landings—17 stitches after hitting a tree on takeoff in China; run-ins with the locals—stone-throwing women in a village in Yemen; ridicule—a cadre of Sudanese soldiers hired to protect him instead laughing, “We were hired to protect you and you are trying to kill yourself!”; and even arrest—the much-publicized incident near a Kansas cattle feed lot for the May issue of National Geographic.

But these are far outweighed by the moments of beauty, wonder, and satisfaction from capturing scenes that few—other than birds— get to see. He describes a moment in the Sahara desert. He had been shadowing a caravan of several hundred camels for several days, trying to get the shot he wanted, until one morning he decided to go for another fly.

Salt caravans pass each other in the enormous plain of the Ténéré Desert in the Sahara. The caravan in the foreground is on its way out of the desert, each camel loaded with 440 pounds of salt, while the one in the background is on its way to Fachi, with loads of fodder and foodstuffs for the return trip.
Salt caravans pass each other in the enormous plain of the Ténéré Desert in the Sahara. The caravan in the foreground is on its way out of the desert, each camel loaded with 440 pounds of salt, while the one in the background is on its way to Fachi, with loads of fodder and foodstuffs for the return trip.

“I looked on the horizon and there was another caravan coming the opposite way. So I was able to get these two enormous caravans passing each other. I had been flying over the camels for days and they didn’t care about me at all,” (Steinmetz tells me that sometimes the sound of his paraglider is enough to get some of the more flighty animals running, a fact which he sometimes, very judiciously, might use to his advantage) “I was able to get this really rare moment. That kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore, the caravans are kind of dying. I was able to get this retina to brain shock where you are seeing something really fabulous that you’ve never seen before. As a photographer I live for those moments.”

The middle altitude of 100-500 feet, just below helicopter range, is where Steinmetz prefers to hang out: “You are seeing [the land] more obliquely, so you see the 3-D relationship. It’s the perfect mix where I can see the gross pattern—the infinite skyline or the mountains in the distance but also people and what they are doing.” He describes it as “street photography from the sky.”

Aerial views of the north/south road leading into the Taklimakan  oil field in China.   Every few miles along the road is a small blue building housing workers who monitor and repair a section of the greenbelt.
Aerial views of the north/south road leading into the Taklimakan oil field in China. Every few miles along the road is a small blue building housing workers who monitor and repair a section of the greenbelt. From the May 2008 issue of National Geographic
Water dark with tannin inspired the name Rio Negro, or
Water dark with tannin inspired the name Rio Negro, or “black river,” which swirls across virgin sand in Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil. From the July 2010 issue of National Geographic
Tight clusters of traditional mud-brick-and-palm houses have stood for centuries in Ghadames, Libya, a pre-Roman oasis town in the Sahara. Rooftop walkways allowed women to move freely, concealed from men’s view.
Tight clusters of traditional mud-brick-and-palm houses have stood for centuries in Ghadames, Libya, a pre-Roman oasis town in the Sahara. Rooftop walkways allowed women to move freely, concealed from men’s view. From the February 2013 issue of National Geographic

Steinmetz strongly believes his pictures must tell a story of what’s happening below, either of the people or the landscape. Having studied geophysics at Stanford, “I have a pretty good understanding of the fundamentals of geomorphology, the forces that shape the earth, and in the air I’ll try to find the position in the sky and the time of day that renders that most cleanly and aesthetically. I want to take really fabulous pictures but [have] those pictures decode the landscape for the viewer. You want to look at spatial relationships—to have the tongue of the glacier in the foreground and you see it winding back into the mountains, and the light is just right. A picture has to tell a story.”

Aloft in a wilderness of blowing sand, Alain Arnoux pilots his motorized paraglider in tricky winds along a massive dune in Iran's vast Lut Desert. Frenchman Arnoux, a champion flier, has assisted photographer George Steinmetz on more than a dozen aerial expeditions to document the shape-shifting beauty of the world's arid zones.
Aloft in a wilderness of blowing sand, Alain Arnoux pilots his motorized paraglider in tricky winds along a massive dune in Iran’s vast Lut Desert. Frenchman Arnoux, a champion flier, has assisted photographer George Steinmetz on more than a dozen aerial expeditions to document the shape-shifting beauty of the world’s arid zones. From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic

“What I love to do is take pictures of things that people haven’t ever seen before,” he continues. “If I’m sitting next to someone on an airline and they open up the magazine and say “Wow look at that!” that makes my day.”

Listen to Steinmetz talk about what inspires him as a photographer. You can also learn more about Steinmetz on his website.

There are 49 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Laura King
    June 3, 2014

    Clearly a thrill seeker, best photojournalist ever , THANK YOU AND YOUR CREW

  2. Juliet Burt
    June 2, 2014

    What a wonderful shots and an amazing world we lived in and human should protect it. I thank you for giving me an opportunity to see the world.

  3. Ellen M.
    June 2, 2014

    I couldn’t stop looking at the pictures. I looked over and over. Just wonderful and thank you.

  4. Mesadavid6
    May 31, 2014

    What a gallant deed, so we mortals can see these pictures. Thanks Alain Arnoux

  5. Davidmesa6
    May 31, 2014

    What a gallant deed, so we mortals can see these pictures. Thanks Alain Arnoux.

  6. Sanat Kumar Kar
    May 31, 2014

    Art per excellence…move on; thanks for sharing

  7. Julius
    May 31, 2014

    You need no words!
    Absolutely fantastic.

  8. SHINU V
    May 31, 2014

    Brave Photos
    Hard work will pay off…

  9. Denilz
    May 30, 2014

    Amazing…, thanks for bringing me to other world. I wish someday I could join with you…flying to new places

  10. Dong Niu
    May 29, 2014

    I was once in XinJiang, a couple of guys of us wandering in a huge market of dried grapes and asked a seller if we could by 50 Jin (25kg) of them, the seller was so disappointed since we were in suits and he thought it would be a huge bill to take and answered us: sir, you should go to the retailers outside, we only take orders minimum as 1 ton…. what a hell of such a huge market!!!

  11. Judit
    May 28, 2014

    Amazing!!! Congratulations and thanks for sharing all these wonders!

  12. Danielle
    May 27, 2014

    WOW!!! some absolute outstanding imagery.

  13. ed bogdan
    May 27, 2014

    A unique talent for capturing such beauty beheld in the lesser known regions of the world

  14. Carol Star
    May 26, 2014

    What a fresh perspective, I love the photo’s. They are imaginative, offering the viewer a whole new way to see the world. Thank you! Awesome!

  15. Larry G.
    May 26, 2014

    Beautiful, Awesome, Brilliant are all understatements… Your work is on a whole new level!!! I love it!!!!!!!!!

  16. Rano
    May 26, 2014

    So beautiful, and there are no words.

  17. Lisa
    May 25, 2014

    Thank you for sharing your amazing and breathtaking photos!

  18. Susan Heard
    May 25, 2014

    Chilies and dunes two favourites out of an interesting awsome album

  19. youcef
    May 25, 2014

    George Steinmetz is a real artist

  20. Tony Cooley
    May 25, 2014

    I love geomorphology and looking at stereo aerial photography. I now do this with a stereoscope mounted to look at a computer monitor so I can annotate it with a tablet. The use of a paraglider is beyond me, but with the drones, it appears a camera might be mounted to broadcast to the ground to allow remote taking of photos. The paraglider allows more direct judgement of what to take, but sounds more expensive and dangerous. Interesting article.

  21. AlviKamran
    May 25, 2014

    Fantabulous

  22. Morgan J Walker
    May 25, 2014

    Absolutely stunning, incredibly breathe taking and imaginitve…

  23. jhenna tizon
    May 25, 2014

    absolutely beautiful, your the man…

  24. hkkhan
    May 25, 2014

    It’a amazing it’s brilliant think of you

  25. Manuel
    May 25, 2014

    awesome!

  26. Khurshed
    May 24, 2014

    F A N T A S T I C

  27. GOOGLE
    May 24, 2014

    that was the coolest thing everrr

  28. jose
    May 24, 2014

    WOW Amazing

  29. Sue Ybarra
    May 23, 2014

    Your dedication is inspiring. Your work is awesome!

  30. steve rooney
    May 23, 2014

    George’s photos are so intriguing I bought his hard cover photo book.

  31. Lloyd McKellar-Basset
    May 23, 2014

    On the bucket list. Inspired to travel to these destinations. Nice work

  32. Jorge Weiss
    May 23, 2014

    Wonderful Pictures.

  33. Rosyad Hizbussalam
    May 23, 2014

    Those pictures are really epic taken with high risk. Those also tell stories that rare for everyone.

  34. j mayes
    May 22, 2014

    Great shots. In the video just before you land, you show what look like boulder impressions. Where and what is that place. Looks interesting. .

  35. SHANNON
    May 22, 2014

    WOW! Look at THAT!!!!!

  36. Fiaz Farrelly
    May 22, 2014

    Absolutely incredible!!

  37. Brucer
    May 22, 2014

    Outstanding!!!

  38. Gene Essack
    May 22, 2014

    Mind blowing ly awesome…what a truly beautiful world we live in…

  39. shalmali bhagwat
    May 22, 2014

    beautiful.

  40. Kim Albersen
    May 22, 2014

    great stuff. I stared at the Libyan rooftops for several minutes. What an usual style of building.

  41. Gill Day
    May 22, 2014

    Amazing shots taken by very brave photographers risking their lives.

  42. Hilary Broughton
    May 22, 2014

    Absolutely brilliant

  43. Jacqui Hardie
    May 22, 2014

    Absolute madness but what amazing images

  44. Kalyan Chappidi
    May 22, 2014

    When u try to look at the world from a different angle there is a whole new world waiting for you. Amazing pictures that are just breath taking

  45. Yaghoub Vadoudi Mofid
    May 22, 2014

    Very nice wonderfull . Tanks

  46. marge yap
    May 22, 2014

    exotic pictures!

  47. Alice Pandya
    May 21, 2014

    Awesome, mind blowing

  48. samuel gichanga
    May 21, 2014

    Awesome! Art + Danger.

  49. david brian Randall
    May 21, 2014

    Brilliant

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