Photo Gallery: See some of George Steinmetz's African Air images in a photo gallery.
Most photographers pride themselves on being able to see the big picture. George Steinmetz actually straps himself into a motorized paraglider and hovers hundreds of feet above the world's most spectacular scenery to create his signature panoramic images. Time and again he has returned to Africa, where his "flying lawn chair" has enabled him to capture some of the best known photos that National Geographic has published of that continent. Many of those shots appear in his monumental new book, African Air, a collection drawn from more than a decade of low-altitude navigating, pointing, and clicking. Below, Steinmetz describes how he first fell for Africa, and how he earned his wings as the natural world's leading aerial artist.
The first time I traveled through Africa, as a 21-year-old hitchhiker carrying a borrowed 35mm camera across the Sahara, all the action seemed to be happening on the ground. Chad had no government but plenty of guns; gasoline was sold in green wine bottles. The tracker I hired in what was then the Central African Empire had followed the BaAka Pygmy custom of chipping his front teeth into sharp points, giving him the fearsome grin of a piranha. I spent a three-day train trip to Khartoum amid passengers who preferred to ride for free atop the arched roof; the tricky part was sleeping perpendicular to the cars so that we didn't roll off in the middle of the night. Something extraordinary always seemed to lie just over the horizon in Africa, and I dreamed of being able to see the continent's patterns unfold from the sky.
Flying in Africa is not easy or cheap, though. In 1996, National Geographic agreed to finance a loosely defined aerial portfolio. But as I buzzed around the edges of the Sahara in small planes, I became frustrated. Moving at 60 miles an hour, I had a hard time explaining to a pilot where my shooting eye told me to go. I decided to investigate powered paragliding. The few people I could find who'd actually gone up in a motorized paraglider told me that it was a reasonable thing to do, as long as I limited my flying to the early morning hours when the air is calm (and the light is best for photography). On one training flight in Arizona I took off OK but spent too much time snapping pictures, ran out of gas over Monument Valley, and had to make an emergency landing in the desert. My traveling companion was frantic when he found me, walking out of a little dry wash with all my flight gear still attached, but I was ecstatic: The worst-case scenario was not so bad after all.