Photographers are known for going to extremes to get the perfect shot. George Steinmetz's method can be considered just plain crazy.
To capture unique aerial views of the world's "hyperarid" desert regions (areas with less than 4 inches of rainfall annually), Steinmetz uses a motorized paraglider — what he calls his "flying lawn chair" — to float hundreds of feet above stretches of remote sand dunes, active lava lakes, ancient cities, inhospitable mountain terrain and the occasional glorious oasis.
During his 15-year photographic exploration, he has subjected his body to severe temperatures, crashed into a tree in China, dislocated four fingers, and been detained in Iran for suspicion of spying. His epic adventures are the focus of "Desert Air" (Abrams: $60), a colossal collection of panoramic landscapes chronicling his travels across 27 countries and Antarctica.
Steinmetz, who occasionally visited Death Valley while growing up in Beverly Hills, got his first real immersion in a Third World desert while hitchhiking across Africa on a break from Stanford, where he studied geophysics.
"I was infected by its austerity, the open space and surreal environment," Steinmetz said from his home in New Jersey. "I felt like I was an ant crawling across the pavement." It was a few years later while watching a caravan of hundreds of camels crossing the Ténéré Desert in Niger that he had an epiphany. "I knew that if I could get up high, I could visualize the landscape and patterns in a different, more intimate way," he said.
He didn't want to shoot from a traditional aircraft; instead, he wanted to cruise around like a bird. (Much later, ironically, he was nearly done in by a flock of flamingos taking off from Laguna Colorada, an orange lagoon 14,000 feet above sea level in the Bolivian Andes.)
The lightweight paraglider with parachute-style wings travels at 30 mph with two hours of airtime. Its self-stabilizing function makes it possible to take photos and fly simultaneously. Steinmetz compares it to a kayak, leaning and turning to navigate.
What he managed to capture were remarkable images from remote places such as a 1,000-year-old monastery in Ladakh, India, rarely seen because of their inaccessibility.
"I was impressed by the conversion and evolution of landscapes," said the 55-year-old father of three. "You can see the same land forms in all deserts expressed in so many different ways." He sites as an example the crescent-shaped barchan dunes found in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia as well as in the ice in Antarctica, both shaped by wind.
Many sites he photographed no longer exist, such as the ancient citadel of Bam in Iran, destroyed by an earthquake in 2004. "There's a misconception that deserts are wastelands, a place to dump trash, test nuclear weapons or train soldiers," he said. "To me, they are fragile, undervalued environments."
The pictures were not easy to get. Although he was unable to fly into the Sudanese desert because of tensions and forced to flee Iran in 2003 before he finished his visit, his persistence paid off in Libya, where after a recent regime change he was allowed to photograph the dormant volcano Wau An-Namus.
Many of his travels have been funded by assignments for National Geographic and GEO magazine. Steinmetz has been honored for his photographic studies in the fields of nature, science and environment from World Press Photo, the Overseas Press Club and Life magazine's Alfred Eisenstadt Awards of Antarctica. Some of his photos are being exhibited at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Anastasia Photo Gallery in New York. Arts Brookfield in downtown Los Angeles will present a show from July 3 through 26.