The work of Swedish photographer and image manipulator Erik Johansson has become a worldwide sensation. His collages combine disparate photo features into surrealist works of art, and have elicited reactions of wonder from the online community in particular. We spoke to him about the extensive work and planning that goes into creating his mind-bending images.
Though he travels constantly for work and spends a lot of time in his native Sweden, we caught up with Johansson in Prague. He set up a new studio there six months ago, partly because of the booming creative scene in the Czech capital and partly to live with his partner who works in the local film industry.
“Planning and coming up with the idea is what takes up the most time” he explains. “Just coming up with the idea can take a couple of months before I start working on something.” Johansson says the biggest challenge is finding and choosing all the different parts he needs to photograph. He is very quick to point out that everything he uses to construct his completed works is indeed photographed; “The biggest misconception with my work is that it’s something that is created in Photoshop. It’s more about having good material to work with. Photoshop is just where I put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Johansson personally gathers these puzzle pieces himself by going out with a Hasselblad H5D-40 camera (he’s upgrading to the H6D-50 soon) and a 35-90mm lens, and capturing each one. Detail is important, as he has take great care to match perspectives and light so they fit together. Johansson is adamant that the realism in his pictures can only be achieved by shooting everything in-camera. “No one can tell you it doesn’t look realistic if it actually was captured,” he chuckles.
Surprisingly, Johansson claims that the final step of compositing all of the images together is relatively quick and painless, “If I did a pretty good job in shooting and planning stages that’s a pretty straightforward process actually.” He tells us that it takes up to three months to complete each image but that he’s often busy with several projects (creating six to eight per year) and will bounce between them to keep his perspective fresh.
“Photography for me is not about capturing a moment it’s about capturing an idea.”
When asked where the ideas for these jaw-dropping concepts come from, he answers that he is best inspired “…when I am in silence and I don’t have too many impressions around me. I really like travelling by train, looking out the window and thinking about stuff.” During these reveries Johansson is often able to make unusual connections between things, be it power lines that look like guitar strings or a landscape resembling crumpled paper. As Johansson puts it,“Trying to just question logic and trying to think a little differently about stuff; I think that’s a good way to come up with ideas.”
Of course, Johansson doesn’t live in a zen-like vacuum 24/7. To fuel his process he also looks to other artists for inspiration, citing DeviantArt, 500px, and Behance among his favourite sites. He also admits a habit of buying books on any number of topics that will get his juices flowing; landscape art, illusions, or almost anything from the gift shops of the many art exhibitions he visits. There is indeed a very discernable influence in Johansson’s work from his artistic idols; surrealist painters such as Dali, M.C Escher, and René Magritte. It seems almost peculiar when he doesn’t cite any photographers as major influencers.
“There isn’t a photographer I find as much inspiration from as I find in surrealist works,” he admits. “I see my photographs as paint, Photoshop is my canvas. Photography for me is not about capturing a moment it’s about capturing an idea.”
Johansson’s art certainly does conjure up a myriad of ideas that can be interpreted by people in totally different ways, which is what makes them incredibly appealing. He does appear to return to a regular theme of the natural and industrial worlds colliding. “Growing up in nature, in the countryside of Sweden, nature has always been around me,” he answers, “now living in a city I think that contrast is something that’s with me. In some ways I see it all the time.” Johansson does make clear that there is no single message to his work, that most the ideas come from his subconscious.
Johansson also listens to music in his studio, a mix of mainstream acts like Daft Punk and the White Stripes, and (in a fittingly Swedish fashion) techno/electronic tracks. Relying on the personalised playlists that Spotify provides, music gets him “into the flow when I work.” Johannson says that music can affect the mood of what he is currently working on especially in the early stages, “…depending on what I’m listening to it can change whether it’s more cold or warm.”
Johansson is very humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response to his work online. When we mention that his popularity has resulted in a lot of illegal sharing of his work he isn’t overly concerned. “Of course there are upsides and downsides to the internet, it’s like the wild west. People just grab stuff and post it, but the upside is worth it.”
In addition to his personal projects, Johansson’s popularity has gifted him a swathe of commercial contracts.“Bringing someone else’s vision to life is a challenge,” he points out. One of his regular clients, Adobe, has provided his ‘paintbrush’ of choice for 16 years, Photoshop. When asked about his dedication to the software he says that though he’s experimented with Affinity Photo and is very open to new software, Photoshop has all he needs. “My ideas are usually about transitions between different materials, and I think that Photoshop is perfect tool to create these transitions”
Looking to the future, Johansson says he has a wealth of ideas that just need forming. He constantly revisits sketchbooks of his initial thoughts to see if a new point of view can flesh them out. One in particular he says he’s excited about involves a man on a ladder replacing the current phase of the moon with a new one from a wheelbarrow. “There are always ideas in mind that I just haven’t found locations for yet,” he says excitedly. In February 2016 Johansson released his first book, Imagine, a collection of 50 of his best works.
Johansson makes for an impressive figure – he is always on, never at rest, considering every object as a potential project material and every scene as potential inspiration. What drives this home is his answer to a final question about his favourite personal project.
“The next one,” he answers with a laugh.