Despite a lack of formal training in photography or studio art — or even classroom instruction in Adobe Photoshop — Erik Johansson has become a master at the art of photo retouching in only a few years. His impossible landscapes seem alternately humorous and menacing, trapping their inhabitants in vexing circumstances beyond their control as if they're witnessing a break in the space-time continuum.
Echoing the mathematical preciseness of M.C. Escher and the jocularity of Salvador Dalí, among others, Erik's photographs depict attractive, compelling landscapes where up is often down and perspectives are always misleading. His artistry is evident in the sheer realism that he manages to embed in his scenes, no matter how absurd.
Originally from Götene, Sweden, Erik spoke with us from his new home in Berlin, Germany.
Inspire: Your image "Cut & Fold" is a stunning piece of work. It shows a lush countryside that threatens a bicyclist in an oddly humorous way. Where did the idea come from?
Erik Johansson: I thought about landscapes being like paper, and I thought about the dotted line in the road. I made the connection between that and how when you're supposed to cut something out of a magazine, you cut along the dotted line with scissors. I mixed those two together; I looked at that and thought maybe a landscape could be like paper.
Inspire: Once you have an idea, it must become quite a challenge to make it happen.
Johansson: Yes, it always starts with something simple like an idea. And I have to figure out how to execute that idea in the most visually pleasing way. There's a lot of planning involved.
Inspire: Your behind-the-scenes video for "Cut & Fold" makes that planning clear. We see you assemble a huge number of grass, sky, and tree images to make your photo look real. It's not just about using Photoshop; there's a lot of craft involved, even using paper and scissors, appropriately enough.
Johansson: I wanted to do something with paper — something more physical, not just a retouch project. Although I obviously use Photoshop quite a bit, I try to do as much as possible in-camera, which makes the illusion look more realistic and makes things easier during post-production.
Inspire: How has growing up in the Swedish countryside shaped your art?
Johansson: I think it plays a really big role, especially with my personal work. I have to know where to find the environments that I have in mind. A lot of scenes in my pictures are actually captured around where my parents live because I know those areas quite well. My ideas are often connected to the Swedish countryside. It's very flat where I come from, and that's why my scenes are quite wide and big.
Inspire: Are lush landscapes, no matter how weird, becoming your signature look?
Johansson: Now that I've moved to Berlin, I will probably shoot more urban scenes.
Inspire: Why Berlin?
Johansson: I wanted to move to a bigger place. In Sweden, only Stockholm or Gothenburg is big enough for the kind of work I do. I've always liked Berlin, and I think it's a very interesting place for art and photography. It's great for inspiration. Because of the former Berlin Wall, you have a contrast between the different parts [former West and East sectors]. You can find really big, abandoned buildings in the middle of the city, and just a couple of hundred meters away, you can see really nice, modern houses. I am sure I will draw on that contrast in my future work.
Inspire: Your pictures make Sweden look beautiful and real.
Johansson: Well, I usually change everything in them. The foreground is one picture, and the background is another. It's pretty hard to find one location that has it all. I just compose it to make it look real. It's usually easier to have everything in a separate layer in Photoshop because then you can change it exactly the way you want.
Inspire: Such as the background trees and sky.
Johansson: Yes, every tree and sky. I always cut out the sky [in my shots] so I can pick one that suits my idea best. They're all in layers.
Inspire: How many photos did you take for "Cut & Fold" before you were satisfied that you had enough coverage?
Johansson: I don't know, maybe 10 to 20 pictures. That one has about 130 layers. I try to work as nondestructively as possible so I can go back and change different parts even when I'm doing the final touches.
Inspire: Even though your scenes are fantastic, they maintain a sense of reality. Why is realism important to you?
Johansson: I see myself as a photographer who can't quite capture my ideas solely with a camera. Photoshop is just a way for me to realize the idea I have in my head. Since the camera captures something real, I want to make my pictures look realistic, as if they could have been captured somehow.
Inspire: You seem to like how the brain can be tricked into seeing something, even briefly, that's not really there.
Johansson: I like illusions — when something looks like something else. That's why I like the perspective illusions and double-perspectives of M.C. Escher. I also like the feeling and colors of Salvador Dalí and the playfulness from some other artists. I try to pick the best from all of them and imagine how I can do something in a similar fashion but with photography.
Inspire: Do you have a favorite image that inspired you?
Johansson: Escher's picture with the staircases going through the wall and floor and ceilings — I think that picture ["Relativity"] is just amazing and really simple in a way, but at the same time extremely advanced. The way he connects mathematics to art is really fascinating.
Inspire: What do you mean?
Johansson: The way Escher creates his work — how something would look — has a lot to do with calculations. Since you can't see something like that in the real world, you have to imagine how you can create it. And then you have to understand nature, and nature is mathematics in a way. That's the model to interpret the world.
Inspire: Step us through your process from idea to completion.
Johansson: I divide the process into three different steps.
First you have the planning or problem-solving phase when you come up with an idea. It's the most important step. You find locations and figure out what you need to shoot to be able to create this idea. For example, if you want to make a road look like fabric, you have to shoot a road and then you obviously have to shoot some fabric.
After you find all the locations, you then move on to the second step, which is the photographing phase where you collect all the different materials you need. To me, photography is just a way to collect the material I need to create my picture.
The third step is post-production, which is basically like putting a puzzle together. I have all the pieces I need; I just have to create the final composition.
Inspire: Do you do all the work in each step yourself?
Johansson: Yes. I think that's really important because if I both shoot and put it together, it makes it easier to know what exactly I need to do in each phase of the process. That's one of the reasons why my work looks the way it does.
Inspire: How do you alter your involvement in the process for your commissioned work?
Johansson: It depends. Sometimes a company contacts me directly, and then I am involved in the whole idea process. Other times I work with advertising agencies, and usually they have an idea, and they need me to realize it. And sometimes I work with other photographers, and I just do the post-production.
Inspire: Describe your post-production workflow.
Johansson: I do everything on a PC running [Microsoft] Windows 7. Besides Photoshop CS6, I use [Adobe] Lightroom 4 for selecting the different photos.
Whether it's for personal work or commissioned work, I select and rate the different photos that I think are the best fit in Lightroom and then I open them in Photoshop and start to put it together to see roughly what it looks like. I build the piece up from the back. If I have a really complex background layer, I usually put everything together as two smart objects to make it easier to work with big files like this.
Inspire: What about your hardware configuration?
Johansson: I have one 24-inch screen for the Photoshop canvas, and I have a 22-inch screen tilted at 90 degrees for all the Photoshop panels. I have a Wacom Intuos5 touch Medium board, too. I use the mouse as much as I use the Wacom board. I don't know why but, for precision, I think it's sometimes easier to use the mouse. But the tablet is great for shading.
Inspire: What about in the field?
Johansson: I have a computer with me, so I can review the pictures I shoot in Lightroom [tethered shooting]. When I come up with ideas, I just make a note in my phone or do a quick sketch or something so that I can keep my ideas fresh.
I don't have a tablet. If you could shoot and make it appear on the tablet that would be great. For portfolio work, I have a print portfolio that I bring to agencies. I'm a big fan of prints, actually. I really like the way you see the detail in the print compared to on the screen. I always prefer that.
Inspire: You've mentioned that you pretty much work alone but I'm wondering whether you ever bounce your ideas off others.
Johansson: Feedback is really important to me. When you work on a picture for such a long time — sitting 10–20 hours throughout the week with a photo — it's really hard to see it the way someone else would see it the first time. So before I publish the work on my website, I usually put it up on different photo community websites to find out what people feel when they see it. I get more technical feedback from my photography friends — like if a shadow doesn't look right or if something looks weird. It's good to get all kinds of feedback.
Inspire: You've done some interesting public art. How did that happen?
Johansson: Last year Microsoft asked me if I wanted to be in a project called Generation 7 where seven selected talents in different areas were offered resources to realize their dream project. I thought it would be interesting to do something like an installation. I like how those street artists do 3D illusions with chalk and paint, and I thought it would be interesting to see if I could do that with photography — maybe make it look even more realistic.
Inspire: It's fun to watch people interacting with them.
Johansson: Yes, "Mind Your Step" is the biggest one I've done. I wanted to involve a lot of people, so I picked a big open space in Stockholm. And I thought it would be more interesting to do it on the ground instead of a wall so that people would be able to interact with it.
Inspire: Your video of the fake doorway leading into a shop is really funny. Someone tries to walk into it.
Johansson: It's actually a friend. I asked him just to walk by and look at the door, but he suggested trying to walk into the door. It's a nice way to get some views on YouTube [290,000 so far].
Inspire: You like to show how your fakery works. You have a video of an illusion demonstration, for example.
Johansson: The reason why I do the behind-the-scenes stuff is to inspire people and show them my works in progress — the same way I get inspired by others. My advice to other people is that trying is the best way of learning. It's nice to look at a certain technique that's explained in a tutorial, but you have to get to know the tools yourself by trying them. It requires a lot of patience and imagination. I mean, everyone can learn Photoshop — and that's the best thing, everyone is using it, from professionals to beginners. I think it's an amazing piece of software where only your imagination is the limit.
Stefan Gruenwedel is the senior editorial producer for Adobe Inspire Magazine. He also produces videos for Adobe TV and the Adobe Developer Connection. Stefan occasionally finds time to make short-form documentaries.