First Drafts: George Steinmetz's Aerial Photographs

The National Geographic photographer describes what went into a series he took in Arabia's Empty Quarter desert

Special Report: How Genius Works

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.

My friend Alain plotted the route with a blue pen [on the USGS map]. There was one false lead. The pink on the map is what they call sabkhas. They're crystallized salt flats, with a sandy top. It's basically quicksand—not this Lawrence-of-Arabia shit, but the real deal. Generally you can drive quite easily on the sabkha, and then all of a sudden you start hearing some spattering in the wheel wells, and you realize you're getting into soft stuff, and if you stop you might be totally stuck and never be able to get out. There are no trees to wrap a cable around. The only thing to pull you out is another car.

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© Department of the Interior United States Geological Survey, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Miscellaneous Geologic Investigations Map I-215A

The yellow spots on the map are sand dunes, some of them extremely difficult to cross. You don't know before you get there whether it's a five-meter or a 200-meter dune. But when we got out there what was surprising was that the dunes had not moved. Usually you start driving out there and realize your map is bullshit because the thing marked here doesn't really exist. But these USGS maps were spot-on.

The flying lawn chair is the lightest, slowest motorized aircraft in the world. It weighs—depending on how much fuel you put in it—less than 100 pounds, and flies at about 30 mph. If the tank is full, and you're economical, you can fly for a little over two hours. It's a tail-pusher, like a leaf blower, with paraglider wings. You don't need an airfield to take off, just a little patch of land maybe the size of two tennis courts. My preference is flying low, between 100 and 500 feet above the ground, and getting an intimate, three-dimensional view of the landscape. All the while you have to balance taking pictures with the practicalities of flying the damn thing—your altitude, the motor, the wind, the clouds, sandstorms, thunderstorms. It's piloting.

On my second trip back Google Earth was around, and I went through huge amounts of that data, along with Ron's stuff, looking for interesting formations, curiosities, irregularities. I'd look for unusual patterns—star dunes, sword dunes, these weird little dot dunes. But you don't know what you're looking for till you see it. It's like trying to find a worm in your lawn: You'd have to look the whole thing over through a magnifying glass. I'm kind of nocturnal though, so I'd stay up till two in the morning, when nobody bothers to call, and look at every sand dune in the Empty Quarter.

George Steinmetz, as told to Alex Hoyt

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George Steinmetz
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George Steinmetz
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George Steinmetz