“For a long time, I have felt drawn to wild and magical places, from the deserts to the snow-capped mountains of the Chinese landscape,” the photographer Jonas Daley tells me. “I am curious about the natural world, particularly the kinds of landscapes that feel unknown or mysterious in some way.” For more than five years now, he’s photographed the rolling dunes of the Qaidam Basin, a desert landscape surrounded by mountains, using a converted infrared camera to capture a singular location in all its otherworldly splendor.
The Essential Gear of Jonas Daley
Daley tells us,
“With the help of a friend, I converted one of my cameras, a Sony Alpha a7II, into an infrared camera. I was glad to have his guidance and expertise as I ventured into the world of infrared. The first time I shot the pink sand dunes was actually a happy accident. In the intervening years, I’ve combined what I get from the camera with artistic retouching in post-production, yielding the final result you see here.
“I use this camera with a Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM lens and an infrared filter. The modified infrared camera has become a great partner for me on the road. I often observe the world through its viewfinder, and the fantastic colors continue to serve as a source of inspiration and creation. For me, these colors are the stuff of dreams.”
Growing up, the artist longed for the open road. “When I was young, I traveled all over China on my own,” he says. “Back then, the camera was simply there to record my trips, but in the process of recording, I slowly fell in love with photography. My background is in design, but in the past few years, I have shifted my focus to photography. At the same time, I have traveled to almost every piece of land in Northwest China, developing this style I describe as magical realism.”
Many of those places he’s returned to several times over. “I can only really start to shoot a landscape when I know it well,” he admits. “I clearly remember the first it was the first time I set foot in the Qaidam Basin in June of 2016. I even remember the first time I pressed the shutter.
“Today, what brings me back to this place is not only its desolate beauty but also its ever-changing and unpredictable nature, which speaks out to my spirit of exploration and discovery. Every time I visit, it will give me a different surprise. The once-golden sand dunes of summertime are covered by heavy snow by winter. My favorite times to be in this landscape are sunrise and sunset. Just before sunset, the sand dunes become cleanly outlined by light and shadow, the graceful curves vividly displayed for just a moment.”
Over the years, Daley has explored the landscape during different seasons, watching its character change from one trip to the next. Sometimes, he travels with friends, but often he’s alone with just the sand, the wind, the sun, and the moon. “The climate is dry, and the precipitation is scarce, making this an extremely arid region in China,” he explains. “It is far away from the ocean and surrounded by tall mountains. The best weather in the area generally falls in October. In spring, the landscape is covered by sandstorms most of the time.”
Regardless of when he visits, the landscape feels both vast and inaccessible, like the surface of an alien planet, made all the more strange by Daley’s magical, realist style. “The weather here is very harsh,” the artist admits. “In order to shoot most of these pictures, I usually have to travel by foot to my destination, climbing over an expanse of sand dunes.
“These kinds of landscapes, despite their harshness, have always appealed to me. Once, while working on another series, I found myself in the Taklimakan Desert on the eve of the sandstorm. Without warning, I nearly lost my way, as the wind blew wildly into my face and felt as though it might suffocate me. Still, I cherish all of the experiences I’ve had in these inhospitable yet beautiful places over the years. I want to remember every pleasant moment, every dangerous moment, every sunrise, every sunset, and every meteor falling from the sky.”
All photographs by Jonas Daley. Used with permission. For more from the artist, be sure to visit his website. Follow along on Instagram at jonas.daley, on Twitter at JonasDaley, on Behance at JonasDaley, and on Vimeo at jonasdaley.