The Earth’s Most Extreme Deserts

Behold
The Photo Blog
March 6 2013 11:00 AM

The Earth’s Most Extreme Deserts

Laguna Colorada, Bolivia. A flock of James’s flamingos takes flight from the algae-stained waters of this spring-fed lake at 14,000 feet high in theAndes. Numbering around 50,000, James’s are one of the rarest flamingo species. Virtually all the birds’ breeding activity takes place here.
Laguna Colorada, Bolivia. A flock of James’ flamingos takes flight from the algae-stained waters of this spring-fed lake at 14,000 feet high in the Andes. Numbering around 50,000, James’ are one of the rarest flamingo species. Virtually all the birds’ breeding activity takes place here.

George Steinmetz

“There’s a lot of dry out there,” says George Steinmetz.

He knows what he’s talking about. For the past 15 years, Steinmetz has been photographing hyperarid regions (or “extreme deserts”) in 27 countries around the world plus Antarctica. The result of his work is a 352-page book titled Desert Air, published by Abrams.

All of the aerial images in the book were captured by Steinmetz from his single-passenger paraglider, a flying machine that requires no license to fly because the FAA considers it an experimental aircraft, which Steinmetz packs up in 50- to 72-pound bags when he travels.

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“You can get a pesky customs guy who’s like ‘What’s this stuff?’ and I tell them it’s sporting equipment. You don’t want to lie, but you can kind of be vague and wink and get through,” said Steinmetz.

For the project, Steinmetz spent about a week at a time in each remote destination, taking around three cars: one for people, one for the aircraft, and another for fuel water and firewood. He brought along another pilot for backup, noting it’s helpful to have someone around who can fly in case Steinmetz had to make an emergency landing and needed to be found.

Steinmetz said the project wasn’t cheap, costing about $1,000 a day. “And that isn’t for the Four Seasons,” he joked. “That’s eating bad food and sleeping on the dirt.” Throughout the 15 years he has worked on the project, Steinmetz acquired funding by taking assignments with National Geographic and GEO Magazine in Germany in addition to receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation for his trip to Antarctica.

Dead Sea, Israel. Women sunbathe on this nude beach at Ein Bokek. The hypersaline water and below-sea-level sunshineare thought to be therapeutic for the skin. The shadow at left in the photo is from my paraglider.
Dead Sea, Israel. Women sunbathe on this nude beach at Ein Bokek. The hypersaline water and below-sea-level sunshine are thought to be therapeutic for the skin. The shadow at left in the photo is from my paraglider.

George Steinmetz

Xinjiang, China. Red Peppers are bagged after being laid out to dry in the gravel plains near Baicheng, Xinjiang, China. Although mostpeople presume all deserts are sandy areas, the majority of the earth’s hyperarid regions are barren gravel plains.
Xinjiang, China. Red Peppers are bagged after being laid out to dry in the gravel plains near Baicheng, Xinjiang, China. Although most people presume all deserts are sandy areas, the majority of the earth’s hyperarid regions are barren gravel plains.

George Steinmetz

But knowing when to finish the project is another matter.

“I had been doing this desert thing for a long time and I thought I was close to being done, and then something would pop up and someone would say, ‘Oh, have you thought about going to so and so,’ and I’d end up going there,” he said.

Steinmetz used to rely on NASA for satellite images of the deserts in order to pinpoint locations before heading up in the paraglider, but now he uses Google Earth for his research.

Fachi, Niger Salt caravans pass each other in the enormous Ténéré area of the Sahara. The caravan in the foreground is on its way out of thedesert, each camel loaded with 450 pounds of salt, while the one in the background is on its way in to the salt mines at Bilma.
Fachi, Niger. Salt caravans pass each other in the enormous Ténéré area of the Sahara. The caravan in the foreground is on its way out of the desert, each camel loaded with 450 pounds of salt, while the one in the background is on its way into the salt mines at Bilma.

George Steinmetz

McMurdo Dry Val le y s, Antarc t ic a Near the top of Bull Pass, a helicopter’s shadow falls on the permafrost between a pair offrozen lakes. This is the largest ice-free area in Antarctica and is Earth’s closest equivalent to the polar regions on Mars.
McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Near the top of Bull Pass, a helicopter’s shadow falls on the permafrost between a pair of frozen lakes. This is the largest ice-free area in Antarctica and is Earth’s closest equivalent to the polar regions on Mars.

George Steinmetz

“I’m a photographer who flies; I’m not a pilot who takes pictures,” Steinmetz emphasized. “Before I go I do a lot of research and I look for interesting things to photograph … other things don’t appear [on Google Earth] such as a camel caravan or a new settlement.”

“When you go into the middle of the Sahara it looks like a different planet; there’s virtually no vegetation at all and it looks otherworldly … it looks like you’re on the moon or Mars—and that was the environment that intrigued me, the extreme,” he said.

Desert Air” is on view at Anastasia Photo gallery in New York until March 12.

Chinguetti, Mauritania. A small caravan of camels crosses the complex barchan dunes of El-Djouf. They are following one of the ancient trans-Saharan trade routes that was once used to bring gold, salt, and ivory to far-flung cities.
Chinguetti, Mauritania. A small caravan of camels crosses the complex barchan dunes of El-Djouf. They are following one of the ancient trans-Saharan trade routes that was once used to bring gold, salt, and ivory to far-flung cities.

George Steinmetz

Shibam, Yemen. This ancient trading capital of the Empty Quarter is composed of seven-story mud-and-palm-wood towerhomes built close together to keep the streets and exterior walls cool and shaded for most of the day.
Shibam, Yemen. This ancient trading capital of the Empty Quarter is composed of seven-story mud-and-palm-wood tower homes built close together to keep the streets and exterior walls cool and shaded for most of the day.

George Steinmetz