Surrealist Photographer Erik Johansson Bends Reality Without Photoshop
We talked with the Swedish-born photo artist, who avoids CGI or "faking it" in Photoshop when creating fantastical worlds.
Even if you’ve never heard of Erik Johansson, chances are that you’ve already come across one of his surrealistic masterpieces online. The Swedish-born photo artist uses both physical objects and special retouching techniques to create fantastical worlds in which everything seems possible.
Erik currently lives in Berlin where he’s steadily working on his amazingly creative photo projects, producing an astonishing amount of work and giving an incredible TED Talk before hitting his thirties.
The Creators Project: Can you tell us about the creative process behind making these photos?
Erik Johansson: For me, it's basically just problem solving when I’m trying to make a picture. It always starts with an idea and then I just have to sort of figure out how to translate that idea into an image. Every image consists of different parts and because I always want my work to look as realistic as possible, I shoot all of those parts individually with my camera and never use CGI. So in my work, I’m constantly trying to find out where and how I can capture all the various elements that make up a work.
It takes just as much time to do something in real life as it does trying to "fake it" in Photoshop, so I just thought it would be more fun to do it for real. And because you use actual images, no one can ever tell you it doesn’t look realistic, which to me is very important. Finally, I really like the contrast of being in the countryside taking the photos and then coming to the city and putting it together. I like to combine both parts.
Apart from the stunning visual effect, what other messages are you trying to convey with your photography?
There's not some hidden meaning or something that you can figure out by looking at the images. It’s more about the visual aspects of it all, and the images reflect what I am thinking.
So I guess it’s more up to the viewer to see the message in that sense. When I would read children's books as a kid, I rarely read the text. I just wanted to look at the pictures and create my own story. People should be able to do the same with my pictures. I merely want to give it a title and not talk too much about the message of the picture.
What inspires your work? Any specific sources, in particular?
Inspiration can basically come from anywhere. It’s about seeing connections between things that normally don’t fit together. For example, I have this work where you see high-voltage cables that run into a guitar. That idea came simply by looking at it and thinking: Hey, those could be guitar strings. That was how the idea was born. It can be that simple sometimes.
On your website there are a lot of instructional videos on how you made your projects. Can you tell us about offering these tips and encouraging people to possibly make similar work?
I really enjoy seeing behind-the-scenes videos from other artists, as well. I think it’s very interesting to see how others work and how they create something. But if I had to give beginning artists a piece of advice, I’d say: Trying is the best way of learning. Just go out there and do stuff.
With photography you just have to take pictures, you don’t need a fancy camera or know how to retouch something. You can learn a lot with very little. When I don't know something, I just Google it and find a solution for what I need. In the end, it's all about imagination and what you can come up with. I would really like to see more people doing this sort of thing. I think that would be very interesting.
The scenes in your images are so specific that it's clear they come from one person's control and vision. Would you describe yourself as a control freak?
I think you need to be a little bit of a control freak in order to do this kind of work. I always try to make it look perfect. And although I think it is impossible to actually achieve perfection, I hope I’m getting closer all the time.
At some point you’re so tired of working with the pictures that you just have to leave it for a while and then later on you have to force yourself to go back to it. It’s good to have that kind of perfectionist goal.
With regards to your photo, Iron Man, I once met someone who actually tried to iron her clothes while wearing them because she was in a hurry. Of course she burned herself: Do you think surrealism can encourage some regrettable ideas to people?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t think that people should try the things that I do in my pictures. But maybe I should add a warning label or something. That could be important.