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Seeing the World Through a Surreal Lens

By Alyssa Coppelman

Every few years, Adobe Create likes to check in with Erik Johansson, a photographer and photo-composite artist known for his surrealistic vision. In his most recent work, Johansson continues to transform real locations into mind-bending scenes. 

Johansson shot the individual photos that make up "The Light Keeper" in Ireland, France, and the Czech Republic. 

Johansson’s work springs from a simple thought: a basic idea he’d like to explore or an element of a picture he’d like to create. He starts with a quick sketch, develops a clear idea of what he wants to do, and carefully plans the execution of the image. He shoots every image that goes into a final composition and credits pre-planning before moving to photography for saving time in post-production. However, once he’s on location, he's open to incorporating anything interesting or better than what he’d imagined. While post-production in Adobe Photoshop CC is an intrinsic part of his process, Johansson has been trying to capture more in-camera and then use Photoshop in a more subtle way. This shift bolsters the realism of his surreal images.

Johansson finds inspiration everywhere. At any given moment, his environment, music he’s listening to, and his mood can all affect the tone of his work. He grew up on a farm in Götene, a small countryside town in Sweden, later moving to Gothenburg, Berlin, and finally Prague, where he’s lived for two years. Before living in Prague, he drew more heavily from his Swedish roots and the landscape there, but he has begun featuring scenery from the Czech Republic in his work. “Under the Corner” (see below) is his first image entirely photographed in Prague, though he has used photographs from the Czech Republic in previous work. He avoids using landmarks or anything so identifiable that it would easily tie his work to a recognizable, real-world geography. He’d rather infuse his photographs with the feel of a place, constructing somewhere ambiguously far away, rather than give the viewer a known reference point. 

Whether intentional or coincidental, “Under the Corner” is infused with echoes of Kafka, a native of Prague. 

Johansson says that his birth country will always be a reference point. “Sweden will always have a special place in my work," he notes. "It’s something not just about Sweden but about the North European landscape in general. I like the roughness of it, and the way the light shapes the landscapes in summer and wintertime, with their very long and very short days. You have these very slow sunsets where the light changes so slowly, and that gives them a special character. It’s something I keep coming back to.”

Lately, Johansson has been creating images with more extensive built sets; one example is “Full Moon Service” (see the image and a making-of video below). Although he often tries to capture the larger scene in one take, he still adds parts to every image. “Full Moon Service” is one main image in which he replaced the sky and added moon texture to lamps that served as stand-ins for the moons. To create this image and others like it, Johansson combines five to ten photos. For other artwork that he completely fabricates, such as "Under the Corner,” he combines hundreds of different parts.

Click above for a behind-the-scenes look at Johansson's process to create this image, "Full Moon Service."  

Johansson says his work improves when he can give it time to sit. He'll let a sketch or even an image in post-production marinate for a week before coming back to it. He worked on “Full Moon Service" here and there for eight months. “I tend to spend more and more time on each project, and I think I’ve become more and more of a perfectionist, and it’s a bit of a dilemma in a way. I want to take more time on each project, but I also have more ideas, so it’s a tricky balance.”

Johansson occasionally incorporates stock imagery into commissioned work when the client’s budget or schedule doesn’t allow for Johansson to photograph every facet of the final artwork. For his personal projects, Johansson shoots all the photos himself, taking the time to get lighting and perspective just right. While that "no stock for personal projects" rule may slow down the realization of his vision, he finds it a useful limitation that narrows his focus, since he can only photograph the spaces he physically inhabits. 

On the left, "All Above the Sky"; on the right, "Lifetime."

With commissioned work, the client generally casts the models, occasionally with Johansson’s input. The subjects in Johansson’s personal work are usually people he knows. For both commissioned and personal work, he prefers people to look "normal," which provides a counterpoint to their fantastic surroundings.

When it's time for compositing, Photoshop's Puppet Warp is a favorite tool because Johansson can alter the shapes of things. The Perspective Warp tool lets him adjust perspective in post-production if he didn’t photograph it exactly right on set.  While Johansson has proven methods of obtaining results, he says, “I’m really curious when it comes to technology, and every time I work on a new image in Photoshop I find new ways to do things. This is what makes this program so interesting and so complex. I’m always curious about the updates and new features. If there are different ways I can do something, I’m open to trying and seeing if it's better than what I’m already doing. If it is, I’m happy to use that process instead.”

On the left, "Self Supporting"; on the right, "Loyal Mail."

Johansson's work ages well—it's worth your time to visit previous articles about him: