First Drafts: George Steinmetz's Aerial Photographs

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A freelance photographer who has worked extensively with National Geographic and Germany's GEO magazine, George Steinmetz specializes in aerial photography, shooting not from a plane or helicopter but a motorized paragliding device he calls his "flying lawn chair." His work has been recognized with Life magazine's Alfred Eisenstadt Award, two first prizes in science and technology from World Press Photo, and a grant from the National Science Foundation to document the work of scientists in the Dry Valleys and volcanoes of Antarctica. Recently his work was exhibited at Charlottesville's LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph. Here he shares the geological map and satellite images that inspired and informed his photos of Arabia's Empty Quarter, an entirely uninhabited desert that is larger than France and devoid of a single permanent point of water.

I'd started flying this crazy machine—this motorized lawn chair. And I decided it would be interesting to use it to explore all the world's deserts. The Rub' Al-Khali was high on my list. It's probably the hottest place on earth, although there's no one out there to record the temperature. Most Arabs—the Saudis, Omanis, Emiratis—they never go out there. It's a place even the locals don't know. The Sahara is more famous, but the Empty Quarter is more deadly. But I'm curious about what's over the horizon. I wanted to go and see it and kick the tires.

Someone once told me that before you go on a trip like this, you read everything you can, then try to forget about it and see the place fresh. I'm a map junkie, and the best maps I could find were these old US Geological Survey maps. And I had these satellite photos that I got from Ron Blom at JPL [NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab]. The NASA images told me where these monster dunes are. First I did a lot of trolling on the Internet. I'd go 50 pages deep on Google searches. Sometimes you find some weird old photos somebody's scanned, these fantastic star dunes, but they don't give the location. It's like saying here's a house in France without saying where. So I started looking at Ron's pictures, trying to figure out where in the hell these fantastic dunes could be. In his photos you can see the size of the dunes. Some of them look like macaroons, some like little drop biscuits. You can see the topography, whereas in the maps you only see the contour, the horizontal, and you don't have any idea about their shape and height.

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Landsat-7 ETM+ from NASA 1999-2000 - Compiled by Angela C. King / NASA Landsat

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Ronald G. Blom and Robert E. Crippen for the Mahra Archaeology Project

For this trip I was on assignment for GEO magazine, in Germany, and our writer was this very enterprising guy, Uwe George, who finagled a seat on a surveyor's flight over the Empty Quarter. He saw some cool stuff—a lake in the middle of the Quarter, a spring with a river coming out of it—and got the GPS coordinates from the pilot, and we marked down the spots and tried to get out there by car.

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Alex Hoyt is a freelance writer and digital illustrator whose work has appeared in The AtlanticNational Geographic, and Architect.

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