September 30, 2015

by Dave Hampton

George Steinmetz combines an artist’s eye for composition, color, contrast, and scale with a sense of understated drama.

But, beyond the initial ‘wow’ factor of the stunning images Steinmetz takes from planes, helicopters, ultralight planes, motorized paragliders, and – increasingly – unmanned aerial vehicles (‘drones’), lies the stories of people and their relationships with the places they inhabit.

He is, above all, a storyteller.
Beginning with the photos of an earnest, lanky college student who simply wanted to see the world – all of it – and moving through portraits of personalities – then-San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein: “she’s still an interesting lady”; tech upstart Steve Jobs, and others – to pay the bills, Steinmetz’s increasing grasp of his own role in understanding his subjects framed his approach to an evolving process.Steinmetz presented his work on September 30, 2015 as part of the MDes Risk and Resilience lecture series (Figs. 2,4).

In order to capture images of some the planet’s most remote and extreme environments – rain forests, deserts (all of which Steinmetz has visited), oceans and rivers – as well as closer, but less-known places – a former peat bog in the Netherlands (Fig. 1), the edges of development in Florida’s Everglades – the photographer has had to continue to refine his process of getting the shot.

In an era of satellite imagery, Google Earth, and easier access to other remotely-sensed ‘views from above’, Steinmetz’ taking of photographs is quite personal and involved. He collides with a tree, requiring stitches. He camps with crews in a desert sandstorm, eating bad food. He runs like hell on a short ‘landing strip’ to make a successful takeoff. Like Edward Burtynsky, his preference for the “three-dimensional” and avoidance of the direct overhead shot gives a depth and legibility to his sprawling portraits.

People, camels (Fig. 3), cars, boats, other hang gliders; all become not only a means of representing the vastness of the landscapes Steinmetz brings into our fields of comprehension through his photographs, they are testaments to his way of working, which always involves other people. “This shot was for the amusement of our driver,” he quips, showing a photo with his glider in the background of a dunescape.  He recalls the names of his co-pilots. He talks at length with cranberry bog farmers before taking off overhead.

Steinmetz’ has an allegiance to the people in the stories he wants to tell. Even while the backdrops they inhabit might occasionally overwhelm in their immensity, foreboding, or stunningly otherworldly beauty – there is still a place for people.

These are landscapes as portraiture, on a grand scale.

As an unexpected treat, Steinmetz showed his tools of the trade – his custom-built motorized rig for the paraglider, as well as a new drone (Fig. 4). For students still grasping with methods as they present research, Steinmetz’ work presents the possibility that –  while critical – tools and techniques can recede into to the background, ultimately in service of the story.