Interview with Master Photo Manipulator Erik Johansson

Photo Courtesy of Erik Johansson
Imagination offers us the unique ability to see beyond our material realities into another world that may not make logical sense, but always resonates with us emotionally. Certain forms of technology have allowed us to present these emotional landscapes in incredibly realistic ways, forcing us to possibly even question what reality means to begin with. Many artists have taken to playing with these ideas while using photography as their tool, but very few of them are able to present an image so real, it forces the viewer to accept it, not as a material possibility, but as something larger than that.

Born in the small town of Götene, Sweden in 1985, Erik Johansson seemed to have been born with the love of drawing installed within him, which was perhaps inherited from his grandmother, who was a painter. By the time he got his first digital camera at 15, he already had firmly established his sketching talents, which helped propel him forward into the world of photography. Because of his history with drawing and the finite nature of photography, he began to feel strange to essentially be finished with the work once the shutter snapped shut. This dissatisfaction led him to photo manipulation, where he began altering his photos using programs like Photoshop, twisting and turning them in whatever ways he could imagine to create something unseen.


However, it wasn't until after he began studying in Gothenburg in 2005 that he began to post his images online, quickly receiving commission requests by advertisement agencies. After finishing school with a Master in Interaction Design, Johansson chose to pursue photography full-time, eventually moving to Berlin, Germany and working with various companies like Google, Microsoft, and IKEA. Despite his commercial success, Johansson will always consider his personal projects to be the most important.

With plans to move into motion pictures and books, Johansson's unending imagination has allowed countless people to explore their own. In 2011 he began doing street illusions, one of which gained national attention. "Mind Your Step" was placed in the famous square Sergels torg in the middle of Stockholm. At 105' by 59' feet, the massive image gave the impression of a deep hole in the ground when looked at from just the right angle.
A lot of planning goes into each finished product, always beginning with a simple sketch. After the initial drawing he scouts for locations, always taking his own photographs instead of relying on stock photography (which can sometimes take just one day, several months, or even a year). Once he finds the right location, Johansson will take the photos needed, having to ensure that similar light and perspective is reflected in each. The last step is piecing everything together on the computer, which he considers to be the easiest part of the entire process.

Inspired by the world around him, especially his place of birth (with the wide open spaces around his parents' house being the setting for many of his pieces), Johansson subverts aesthetics and expectations, a firm believer that our only limitations in life are those we place on ourselves. When looking at his photos you can see the impact of Surrealist masters of the past (like MC Escher, Salvador Dali, and René Magritte), and as well as a characteristic wholly unique to Johansson himself.
JustLuxe: Have you ever had such a great idea but found yourself unable to properly execute it (whether because you just hadn't figured out how yet or because the materials wouldn't allow it)? Have you ever had to give up on an idea?

Erik Johansson: I get ideas all the time, not every one gets realized, not even one in ten. As I always shoot everything myself I have to chose the ones I'm actually able to find locations for. Every time a new idea pops up I put them in a book and save them for later, maybe I can realize them some day.

JL: You've mentioned being incredibly self-critical of your work; if you could (or even wanted to) is there an image that you would alter? Do you have any favorite pieces that you're especially proud of?

EJ: Sometimes I think of improvements of the finalized images, but I never allow myself to change them. I want to look forward and the flaws are signs of improvements, I hope I never become satisfied, I think that's very dangerous for an artist. I always want to become better and find new problems to solve.
JL: You've said that you don't use stock photos; does finding the right image in reality to fit with the image in your mind ever pose a problem?

EJ: I don't use stock photos for two reasons:
    1. I think it's nice to have some restrictions, a way to encage imagination and make the work more consistent, I can only do what I can shoot. That makes the photos reflect the world around me, seasons and locations, and gives it a personal touch.
    2. I want to feel like my work is my own, I want to be in charge of every part.
JL: What would you say to someone who thinks that digitally modified images are a lesser form of art?

EJ: If it's well produced it's as good as anything else, but I generally don't like digital manipulation as an art form. It has to be super realistic for me to appreciate it; I don't say my work always is, but that is what I'm trying to create. Like it could have been captured.

JL: Many of your photos reminded me of the film work done between Salvadore Dali and Luis Buñuel; has their film work ever been a source of inspiration for you?

EJ: I didn't know about Luis Buñuel until just recently but Dali is a big inspiration. I generally get more inspired by artists than photographers.
JL: I absolutely love "Wet Dreams on Open Waters." What was your thought process behind it?

EJ: It was a piece I did for a competition on the theme "dreams" at a Swedish photo community, which I won. It was a fun photo to work with, the bed is captured in studio in a similar light and the background was shot at a lake close to my parents home, later summer 2008.

JL: A lot of your pieces depict a sense of isolation, with a lot of lone figures, or doubles separated by a reality divide. Is there a personal symbolic meaning behind this sense of solitude or is it something that's simply visually striking?

EJ: I have thought about that too but that's how the ideas pops up, generally I like putting people in my work, someone reacting to what is happening. Also to give it more realism somehow, so it just doesn't look like a model but a photograph.

JL: Absurdist comedy definitely shines in your work; how does that come about?

EJ: It's not really something I'm trying to create, it's just included in the absurdness of my ideas. Some ideas are quite heavy so the comedy creates a nice balance in the work as well.
JL: Many of your photos show humanity as being overwhelmed and dominated by industrialization and urban landscaping; how do you see the growth of industry and what do you think its relationship to human progress is? Are you optimistic about our future?

EJ: I am optimistic. Growing up on the countryside, nature has always been close to me and something positive. But now I live in Berlin and I love it here. It's not really that I'm trying to create a message, it's just what comes out of me. People are free to do their own interpretations of my work, I just put a title on it.
JL: You're an expert at mashing together two halves, that in reality should never work together, but do, allowing the viewer to live vicariously within the created dreamscape; would you say your work is a bridge between the material world and the spiritual unconscious world? Do you feel like you're carrying on the Surrealist tradition or carving out your own path into new territory?

EJ: In a way I see my work as problem solving, I want to challenge myself to merge two or more worlds and create a realistic transition between them. To make it look realistic, that is the challenge to me. Although I get inspired by surrealist art, I want to go my own way. I'm not really interested in what has been created in history and how my work looks compared to that. I'd rather look into the future and realize as many ideas as possible during the limited time I'm here.

JL: Do you keep a dream journal of any kind to keep up with your own ideas?

EJ: I've tried but I've found out that I get most of my good ideas while I'm awake. The ones I get when I sleep are a bit too psychedelic and inconsistent.
JL: Imagination is something people sometimes take for granted and not everyone has it, or some who do begin losing it; do you ever worry that one day your ideas will slow?

EJ: Everyone has their ups and downs, but I'm not really worried; the ideas usually come more often than I have time to realize them. It's a combination of thinking differently and knowing what could be realized with the tools I have.

JL: How do you feel about the art market today and its role in society?

EJ: I think the Internet has done a lot for art in general. Before, art galleries would decide what's good and not, today anyone can put their work online and if it's good, it will spread itself. I think we will see more and more people selling their own work. To me art is just something I find visually pleasing, I don't care about the name behind it.

JL: Do you have any more large-scale illusions planned, like "Mind Your Step?"

ER: Right now I'm working on new personal projects, but I would love to do something similar to that again. I have an upcoming smaller illusion in Stockholm, Sweden in September. More information will be available on my website.
JL: Do you have anything coming up that you're particularly excited for?

EJ: There is a lot happening right now and I might have some very interesting album art to work within the next year. But generally I try to focus on my personal work right now.

JL: I read that you had plans to move into the film industry and start a book project; how's that going?

EJ: I've been busy with commissioned and personal projects this spring/summer but hopefully a film project isn't that far away. Hopefully later this year.

JL: Is there a question you always wish someone would ask you regarding your work, or one that you wish you'd stop being asked?

EJ: Not that I can think of :)

For more information on Erik Johansson, as well as prints for purchase and a comprehensive FAQ page, visit

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Mila Pantovich

An avid traveler, Mila Pantovich splits her time between San Diego, CA and Banff, AB Canada. She has been working with JustLuxe as a writer and editor since 2012 and has been featured in several publications, including Huffington Post. Additionally, she works in content design at Intuit. Follow her travels on Instagram: @MilaPantovich ...(Read More)

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