American photographer George Steinmetz is best known for his exploration photography. Since 1986, he has completed 31 major photo essays for National Geographic and 25 stories for GEO magazine in Germany. This year he celebrates the release of his third book, Desert Air, a photographic journey 15 years in the making in which he captures the world’s remote and extreme deserts from the seat of his motorized paraglider.
A book signing with Steinmetz will be held on Thursday, December 13, 6:00–7:30pm at the International Center for Photography Store in New York. Desert Air is currently on display at Anastasia Photo in New York through March 3, 2013.
What can you detail about your process of choosing locations; how much are you able to predict what will be visually striking before you are up in the air above it?
“It’s changed over the years. I use Google Earth a lot as a resource. It has limitations but for general scouting it’s really quite wonderful. I recently did a shoot on the Jersey shore looking for hurricane damage. Although Google Earth wasn’t up to date enough to see the damage it was good for figuring out areas I might want to go to that might have good patterns.
“Also, as I’ve been doing this for a long time, maps can be very good. Before Google Earth I relied on maps, especially detailed maps that show terrain. For example, the French have the IGN (Institut Géographique National) which is really detailed and shows dune patterns and different kinds of geography. I also rely a lot on the maps from the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey).”
What do you look for on Google Earth or on the maps that helps you to know there will be good photos there?
“I look for patterns in the terrain. In the old days I had a friend in NASA and I learned to see things in the non-visible wavelengths, which are very subtle; far beyond what Google Earth could show which is only the visible spectrum. Google Earth can be very monochromatic; a lot of it depends on the time of year and time of day that the image was captured. For example, I was looking at images of China on Google Earth that had been taken in the winter. The lakes were frozen and you couldn’t really see that they were lakes.
“However, there’s nothing quite like looking around on the ground, and I frequently discover things I didn’t know were there that way. I like to shoot at harvest time – there will be wonderful patterns out in the ground. A war photographer friend of mine once told me that you get the best pictures by not being in the middle of the conflict but by being on the edge of it. From above oceans aren’t that interesting and rivers are really boring, but on the edges you find really cool stuff.”
What do you think it is about arid landscapes that has particularly attracted you? Are they better suited for aerial photography?
“Yes they are, for a lot of reasons. One of them is that you can see the earth with its living skin peeled away. Also deserts are one of the great classes of wilderness left on the planet; I find them to be really fascinating. Most of the temperate lands have been manipulated by humans and you don’t see their natural state anymore. If I could spin my paraglider over North America 500 years ago it would be incredible, but now it’s been turned into subdivisions and parking lots. The desert still has huge tracts of land with natural patterns intact.”
Have you done much shooting with your glider in Antarctica or the Arctic?
“No, it’s very cold and windy. The winds come up very quickly and blow you out to sea, which is a bad combination. The glider is ideal in warm weather, but in the cold with no fuselage you are swinging like a lawn chair on a string and it gets tough on your hands. Your hands take a beating holding something made of metal when it’s below freezing.”
Is there a specific height off the ground that you find is your sweet spot or get the best results shooting from? You seem to avoid the more abstract angle of shooting straight down that seems to be common in a lot of aerial photography. Is that on purpose?
“I like taking pictures of things that no one has ever seen before. That’s really what photography is all about, seeing things in a new way. From 50 feet up, it’s telephone pole height – not so interesting. I really like shooting from somewhere between 100-300 feet.
“There I can see the world in a more 3-dimensional way; you can make people out and see what they’re doing, you can see what ethnic group they are, you can see if its a donkey or a camel. When you get up too high you lose a lot of color; things get blue or greyed out. Most aerial photos are taken in a plane 500-1000 feet up, and the result is visually very flat. What I’m doing is more personal.”
Have you explored other methods of aerial photography such as helicopters, light planes or balloons? If so, what do you like most about your particular method of motorized paraglider?
“I have done them all; hot air balloon, fixed wing, Cessnas, and all kinds of helicopters. I’ve used big monstrous Russian helicopters with 30 passenger transports. 10 seaters, 5 seaters, 2 seaters etc. Helicopters are great, but the glider has advantages. It’s much quieter and has no downwash, which is important over sensitive terrain to avoid the downwind that creates patterns on the earth.
“Also, with the helicopter you’re going to get people angry on the ground. They’re obnoxious and loud, you feel like you’re under attack in a Vietnam movie when someone is flying low above you. With the paraglider, generally people look at it and say ‘who is that crazy guy, that looks like a lot of fun and kind of dangerous’. It’s a different vibe, friendlier, more personal.”
Is there a certain focal length that you favor in this shooting or do you zoom in and out a lot depending on the scene below you?
“From a visual standpoint, you are able to move directly towards your subject and as you move toward it you see the spatial relationships change between the foreground and the background and you get that whole range of perspective. Typically in helicopters you just get a couple of frames from a particular angle, most pilots will circle around the thing you are photographing. The helicopter pilots don’t really like to hover. Hovering in a helicopter requires drawing a lot of power and it gets bumpy and bouncy.”
“In a glider you have a full range of vision in front of you whereas in helicopters you shoot off the side. Sometimes in order to render the shot the way I want, I have to shoot from a very specific point. At times you need to be within a few feet of something; in my glider I’ll go around and around and around trying to get that perspective right. If I can just get one great picture a day I’m happy. I’ll just play with it over and over and if I’m in my glider there’s no one to complain.”
How do you manage to fly the glider and photograph at the same time? Do you ever crash?
“It takes some concentration and chutzpah. The big advantage is that I’m the pilot, I can put myself exactly where I want in the sky. I don’t have to communicate with someone else where I want to go, it’s instinctual. Having to pilot it at the same time can be a little awkward, but once the aircraft is on the same course it’s self-correcting and self-stabilizing.
“I’ve had some bad wrecks. I had a bad crash in China and I got 17 stitches. I had a crash in Ethiopia where my fingers never quite went straight again. I had a crash in Mexico and I landed in the water, everything was destroyed except me. But in general it’s kind of like falling off a bike, it’s not that bad. The plane is so light, the motor weighs less than 100 pounds, and when you crash the parachute is still up so it takes on some of the weight of the fall. I wear a helmet and kneepads. It’s like being a football player when you get tackled – it’s undignified, hurts, and should be avoided, but it’s survivable.”
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