The only thing that limits us is our imagination – Erik Johansson
Swedish surrealist photographer Erik Johansson creates mesmerising, reality-suspending images featuring everyday objects and situations in unusual contexts.
When Culture Trip interviewed Johansson, he’d just returned from a Magritte exhibition Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Along with fellow surrealists Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher, René Magritte has been the strongest influence on Johansson’s work, specifically his knack of challenging the audience’s perceptions of reality.
The creative process
Johansson is frequently asked how he creates these fantastical surrealist images. For the curious minds, visit Erik Johansson’s official website, where you will find an excellent FAQ and various behind-the-scenes videos, all covering the creative and technical process.
On how the images begin as a theme or a concept, Johansson says,
“It always starts with a sketch or an idea. It’s never that I go out and take photographs and then come up with an idea. It’s usually a simple thought – a connection between two unexpected things and how I can make a transition that looks good and that I can work with.”
Although a finished image can consist of hundreds of different pictures, he makes it appear like a single photo. “If I want the final piece to look like one snapshot, then it needs to be very well planned, with all the different parts,” he explains. When asked whether he uses an archive of photographs, or sets up photo shoots to capture specific pictures for each image, he confirms the shoots are usually purpose-specific. “I do have an archive of … trees, skies, grass, and flat landscapes and sometimes I do use things from my archive, but usually I shoot everything after I come up with the idea,” he said.
Imagine: Created Reality at Fotografiska Museet, Stockholm
Scanning the crowd in attendance at Erik Johansson’s incredible Imagine: Created Reality exhibition at Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm last year highlighted how his unique fantasy-meets-reality approach appeals to both adults and children. “My way of thinking has stayed with me since I was a child, and I guess I never grew up … I always try to think of unexpected ideas and thinking against what’s logical.”
The images Breaking Up and Wake Up are both beautiful and emotionally moving works that make you wonder how much, if at all, these images express Johansson’s inner world. He noted that he is inspired on a subconscious level.
Some pieces carry a stronger narrative. Of the work, Don’t Look Back, Johansson said, “there is some initial story at least, but sometimes I forget what it was that I had in my mind at the time I created something because it’s such a long time from when I start working on it. It can be half a year before it’s done but I do have some ideas … about what I want to say about it and how the initial story goes.”
He added contemplatively that, “The picture Breaking Up, for example – with the landscape breaking up the ice and everything – I was actually coming out of a long relationship at the time. So, in an obvious way, it could have coloured that.”
Continuing with themes, the image Let’s Leave and the aforementioned Don’t Look Back are both about journeying. “Although I come from Sweden, I also lived in Berlin for four years, and moved to Prague a year ago,” he says. “I love to travel, I like seeing new places and, although it sounds like a cliché, life is a journey in a way. Since I still shoot a lot of the material I used in my work in Sweden, it becomes kind of nostalgic.”
Regardless what the themes may actually be, Johansson says he’s always felt that it’s more interesting to hear what others think about his work. “That’s something I really noticed at the Fotografiska exhibition, just walking around there, being anonymous because no one really knows what I look like, and just listening to what other people think. Since the only thing I give to the pictures is a title, it also opens it up to a lot more interpretation of the work.”
It’s clear that Johansson has an affinity for landscapes but just how they are to his work came as a surprise even to himself. “I unexpectedly became the ‘Nature Photographer of the Year in Sweden’ in 2015, which is usually a person who shoots birds or animals … I see myself as a photographer, but I’m also something more than that. But that made me think about how nature plays quite an important role in my work.” He then continues “I’d love to go to Scotland in spring because there are some specific landscapes I think would work really well for a few ideas I have now.”
Places of inspiration
Many of Johansson’s images contain elements that are unmistakably Swedish. “The inspiration for drawing and creating things comes from children’s books from when I was a kid and a lot of those children’s books illustrated Swedish landscapes in different ways. I guess growing up in the Swedish countryside (Götene in Västra Götaland County), it’s been around me for most of my life so when I think of ideas it comes naturally to me that I think of places that tend to look Swedish.”
Already Prague has provided him with a lot of new inspiration. “I’m very fascinated with the architecture here, which is amazing. I tend to get more ideas that are more city-based and I will try to get that into my work as I have a lot of landscape topics in my work already … Where I grew up in Sweden is extremely flat and you often see that in my work — big, flat landscapes and the Czech Republic is quite different. There’s a lot of ups and downs, lots of hills, and valleys and I like those landscapes too. You don’t know what’s beyond the next hill.”
The artist’s opinion of his work
On being asked which pieces are his favourite, Johansson replied Go Your Own Road, for its simplicity, Soundscapes for its detail, but also the perspective illusion ones “that are little bit Escher inspired like The Architect, for example where there’s this house on the inside and the outside at the same time. Those are the kind of pictures I like.”
In addition to his personal works, Johansson is also in demand for commissioned pieces, having produced work for Volvo, Toyota, Google, Adobe, and Microsoft, among others. Johansson described this process as very different:
“It does definitely differ. When it’s my own work I’m the one deciding what it needs to look like and … it can be a little bit sad. But when it comes to selling a product, you usually want it to be a … happier. The mood is a little bit different with the commissioned work, but the ideas don’t need to be that different.”
“Nowadays when people contact and want me to work with them, they want my creativity and my ideas as well so usually I’m also involved together with the advertising agency and coming up with ideas. Usually, they have some ideas, at least, of what they want to do but sometimes it can be that a client contacts me directly and they just have a tagline and then we really start from scratch, then I make five suggestions of ideas that we can discuss and in which direction we want to take it. I usually ask them if there are some of my images that they tend to like more and try and take it a little more in that direction and see where we end up.”
The amount of work involved for each piece cannot be overstated. “Sometimes they don’t understand the amount of work that’s behind these pictures, and that it’s not just something you create in Photoshop. It’s also why I make these behind-the-scenes videos – I think it’s interesting to show the process and the amount of work behind it but it’s also for the clients to realise that.”
2017 will be a busy one for Johansson, with his largest exhibition to date taking place this summer in Helsingborg (in the south of Sweden). His upcoming exhibition at Dunkers Kulturhus will feature 40 prints produced over the past eight years including previously unpublished photographs. “It’s a great big space, and I’ll try and produce as much as I can until then. I’m starting to come up with a lot of new ideas that I’d love to include, but I don’t think there will be time to produce all of those. In addition to the exhibition, I’m working on some newly commissioned work. This will be a productive year. I have a lot of ideas I will try to bring to life.”