George Steinmetz takes aerial photography to new heights—by going lower and slower.
By Katherine Seligman
Moments after liftoff, George Steinmetz knew he was headed for an unscheduled landing. He banked sharply, then saw the rapid approach of a tree and heard the sound of his propeller shattering.
The next thing he remembers is waking up on the ground, his French flying partner standing over him asking if he could wiggle his feet. Steinmetz was “a bloody mess,” scraped and bruised, a branch through his cheek, but otherwise “operational.” A doctor at a Chinese provincial hospital put 19 stitches in his face. Steinmetz rested for a day and went back to work shooting aerial photographs of China for National Geographic magazine.
The May 2008 issue of Geographic features a picture of him on the operating table after the mishap, which did not make his family back home in New Jersey happy. It’s an episode Steinmetz would rather not dwell on—“Everyone always wants a crash story,” he said with a sigh when we first spoke—perhaps because it belies the years of experience and meticulous planning required to shoot pictures from what looks to the untrained eye like a flying lawn chair.
Steinmetz, ’79, is the world’s best known—perhaps the only—professional photographer to make images while flying in a custom-made motorized glider. The contraption, made by a German company from Steinmetz’s specifications, weighs less than 100 pounds and fits into travel bags. In many ways it is like a typical paraglider—a fabric wing connected to a harness attached with Kevlar lines. (Steinmetz takes off by running down a hillside with the wing deployed behind him. As it catches the air, the wing inflates and he goes airborne.) But what makes his aircraft special are the motorized propeller and a throttle that enable him to lock in altitude, freeing his hands to take pictures. He coasts at around 30 miles an hour a few hundred feet off the ground—slower and lower than an airplane can go—over herds of animals and remote landscapes that provide never-before-seen perspectives through his lens.
“The lower altitude gives him a platform for making aerial images that no one else has really explored,” says Kathy Moran, illustrations editor at National Geographic who has edited his pictures and helped with his first book, African Air. “He is something other, like a big bird. Others might manage to take a single picture and you’d stand back and say it’s lovely, but he manages to tell a story. He is weaving a narrative arc.”
The images in African Air (Abrams), many shot while Steinmetz was on assignment for Geographic, range from camels in the Mali desert and a cattle camp in Kenya to the Okavango Delta in Botswana and the sand dunes of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia. In pictures and accompanying text, he details his journey from fledgling shooter to mature photographer. The lanky blond barely out of his teens who stands in a floppy hat and jeans next to a Pygmy gives way to a thoughtful artist whose photos reveal the graceful, often mysterious patterns in nature that can’t be seen by the eye alone.
Today, at 51, he is still driven to explore untouched terrain. He lives in suburban Glen Ridge, N.J., with his wife, Lisa Bannon, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, and the couple’s three children, 7-year-old twins and a 10-year-old who don’t quite understand what Daddy does. “They think I’m Superman,” Steinmetz says. “When their friends say, ‘My dad works on Wall Street, what does your dad do?’ they say, ‘My dad flies.’”
It wasn’t a career he could have imagined growing up in Beverly Hills, which Steinmetz calls “the Gucci ghetto.” The youngest of four kids, he followed his mother, Verna Pace Steinmetz, a 1945 Phi Beta Kappa graduate, and older sister, Julia Steinmetz Breckenridge, ’74, to Stanford. Although she is proud of his accomplishments now, his mother wanted him to choose a career in business, and was not thrilled when he announced plans to be a photographer. (He says she slammed the door and declared, “All photographers have bad breath and BO.”)
He traces his decision to a trip to Europe and North Africa after his sophomore year in college. It was shaping up to be a typical student backpacker’s adventure until he ran out of money in Morocco. He stayed in $2 motels, subsisted on meals of cactus and met a man who’d just ridden a motorcycle across the Sahara.
Drawn to the exotic culture and scenery, Steinmetz decided he would return one day and make his own way through the desert. While bumping along a road in the sand dunes, he even fantasized about finding a small inflatable flying machine, but filed it away under “harebrained ideas.”
He stopped out after his junior year and spent several months as a “ski bum” in Telluride, Colo. That February, he bought a ticket to London and started hitchhiking south. His gear included a camera, a snakebite kit and a stove. “I didn’t really need anything except desire. Everything else gets broken or stolen.”
The trip was “pretty intimidating,” he recalls. There he was in Algiers, speaking no Arabic or French, his thumb out to catch a ride. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. You were very much on your own.”
At night he camped, found cheap lodging or stayed with generous strangers who rarely, if ever, saw Americans. “If you walked around and looked friendly but stupid, people would take you in,” he says. “The cops would invite me to stay at the police station so I wouldn’t get robbed.”
He shot pictures everywhere he traveled, including some pretty bad ones, he says. He knew a little about shutter speeds and light settings, but had never studied photography.
He returned to Stanford and got his degree in geophysics and then worked briefly for an oil company until he could afford to return to Africa. This time he prepared, reading ethnographies and histories of the continent. He lined up photo gigs for the World Bank and Quest magazine. When he got back to the States, he finagled a meeting at National Geographic but didn’t score an assignment. “It was sobering and depressing,” he says. “The editor was impressed by my nerve but said I needed to learn to use artificial light. I didn’t know how to do that. He wanted a well-rounded photographer.”
So Steinmetz moved to San Francisco to learn technique. He worked as a photo assistant, mostly taking out trash, carrying equipment and fetching lunch for the boss. “He fired me for insubordination,” Steinmetz recalls. “I thought I knew more than I did. He was right to fire me. It was a classic beginner’s problem.”
Slowly, he worked his way up the editorial food chain, shooting portraits of new chefs, the bell tower at UC-Berkeley, anything he could scrounge for local magazines. He eventually got assignments from Fortune and Forbes, then Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine and, finally, National Geographic.
It was on a trip to Italy in 1991 for Geographic that he met Bannon, who was working as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. After a transatlantic romance, the two moved to Los Angeles and married in 1997.
“He was not flying any type of aircraft when we got married and I always tell friends I married a photographer, not a pilot,” Bannon said in an e-mail message. When Steinmetz came home one day and announced that he was going to strap on a motor and propeller and fly, she thought he was kidding. “What do you think, you’re James Bond?” she recalls saying to him.
Steinmetz got the idea for a low-flying, hands-free aircraft while on assignment in Niger. He took paragliding lessons on the hills and sea cliffs near La Jolla, Calif., and then advanced to a motorized glider. He convinced an avid paramotorist in France to train him, and had his first flying lesson outside Paris. His instructor then came to Arizona for a test flight in Monument Valley, an experiment to see if Steinmetz could safely concentrate on taking pictures while flying above spectacular scenery.
The flight ended abruptly when he ran out of gas, Steinmetz says. “I realized I wouldn’t make it back and I landed in a river bed. (The instructor) was totally freaked out. He thought I’d need an ambulance. I walked two miles to the road and was fine. It sounds crazy, but it’s actually rational.”
Experience has taught him to take precautions. He checks and rechecks gear before flights, wears a helmet equipped with a radio and travels with an extra motor. “There is no bravado, no carelessness,” editor Moran says. “He has a mission when he’s in the air and that’s to tell the story.”
Others who know Steinmetz watch with a similar combination of wonder and worry. “Around George, there is always a tribe of us. You hear about him,” says Donovan Webster, a writer who has worked with Steinmetz on National Geographic stories. They have slogged through sand dunes in blazing heat, have been stranded in the desert waiting for camels and guides, even detained at gunpoint. Once, after a two-day trek into the desert in Niger, Webster watched as Steinmetz declared he would “just pop up and look around,” then got blown off course and pitched head first into the sand. “I thought, ‘Oh God, he’s broken his neck,’ but he just got up,” Webster says.
These days Steinmetz travels less so he can spend more time with his family. He once promised to stop flying after he finished photographing deserts of the world. “Of course, that project has gone on for more than 10 years now,” Bannon notes. “If George hears there is a kids’ sandbox somewhere that he hasn’t photographed, he will have to go there to take some pictures.”
KATHERINE SELIGMAN, ’75, is a writer in San Francisco.
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Data is from the past two weeks.