Swedish photographer and visual artist Tommy Ingberg creates minimalistic, surreal imagery and photo montages that explore human nature and self-reflection.
We first sat down with Tommy in 2014, when we talked about his project Reality Rearranged and how he made the transition from traditional photography to creating digital art through photography and photo montage. We’ve been eager to catch up with the award-winning photographer since then to find out what’s been happening and what he’s working on next.
In our updated interview, Tommy talks about how his life and art have changed since becoming a father, and how he sees time as invaluable, a concept that helps him appreciate, and be present in, any situation.
When did your interest in photography develop?
When I was 15 years old, I got my first “real” camera, a Praktica with two lenses. It had no autofocus and the metering didn’t work. I spent endless hours experimenting and shooting as much film as I could afford. It was then that I really decided that what I wanted to do was photography. I needed a way to express myself, and instead of playing in a band, painting or writing, I chose photography.
What followed next were several years of intensive photography. But it was first when I could afford a digital camera that I really started to develop, thanks to the fact that I could see the result directly in the camera. The whole process of trial and error was sped up tremendously by not having to wait for the pictures to come back from the lab.
Since then, I have tried several areas of photography, portraits, concert photography, street photography, nature photography and everything in between. I can’t tell you why I chose photography, but there is something about it that really speaks to me. Even nowadays, I can still feel that excitement when I know that I just captured a great picture, often when something unexpected happens in front of the camera. No matter how well you plan your shoots, there is still an element of chance involved and I love that about photography.
How would you describe your style? And do you have any advice for photographers and artists out there who are still struggling to find their own style or niche?
I have always gravitated more towards art photography than documentary photography. I have never seen photography as a way of objectively describing reality, but rather as a way of telling stories and sharing my views. I work mostly in black and white and with simple, uncluttered compositions, where every part of the picture somehow adds to the story being told.
When looking back at my old pictures, I can see how my current style of imagery slowly, but surely matured into what it is today. Subconsciously it’s been there the whole time in terms of lighting and the choice of motives, but it was first when I started doing photo montages that I could really start refining my style further. Finding your own expression is something that happens gradually. It’s a slow process, but if you keep working it will come to you eventually.
When you first started out, you practiced within the constrictions of traditional photography. How did you make the transition to creating digital art through photography and photo montage? And, what attracted you to this particular style of photography?
Years ago, during a rough period of my life, I started creating surreal photo montages dealing with my feelings and inner life. Although I have always felt a “need” to create, I don’t think I ever thought it to be about more than just creating pretty pictures. This time it was different, it was a way for me to try to sort out what was going on inside me. I stopped trying to make what I thought was “art” or “good photography” to others and made pictures just for me, because I needed to. I stopped caring about what other people might think of my work.
By crossing that line, I was free to tell my own stories, and by crossing the line from photography into photo montages, I had the tools to actually tell those stories. The reward was twofold – it helped me as a sort of therapy and, in my art, I also found a purpose, something I love doing and can be proud of.
I think that we all in our own way search for answers, trying to make sense of life, the world and being. For me, this is something I do through creating pictures. The genre, surrealism, was not really a conscious decision. I did not actively choose surrealism and did not have very much knowledge about different forms of art. I just started doing work that felt meaningful to me.
Who are some of your favorite artists and/or photographers and how has their work influenced your own?
Since I’ve tried so many types of photography, my influences have been many and diverse, and from classic photography and arts rather than from digital art.
Early on, it was the great masters of photography, like Cartier-Bresson, Leibovitz, Erwitt, Brassai and so on, too many to name. I consumed a lot of photography and had new favorites every day.
When I started doing photomontages, I started to learn more about the great painters and artists from other fields, like Warhol, Picasso, Magritte, Miró and Escher. I have learned a lot both as an artist and as a person by studying greatness in all fields of art, be it music, photography, painting, poetry or anything else. It is very developing and humbling to look at your own work in that context.
You are a completely self-taught photographer. During the process of experimentation and learning, what things did you find worked best for learning? (Reading, watching tutorials, assisting, shooting self-portraits, etc.)
For me it’s all about being curious, “learning by doing” and experimenting a lot. Of course, the Internet is a fantastic source of knowledge and I can’t imagine how I would have learned (and still be learning) without it.
I think PHLEARN is a great resource with very high quality, and there is always something new to be learned!
How important is Photoshop and post-processing to your works? How would you compare the time spent working and shooting in camera versus editing in Photoshop afterwards?
I always try to do as much work as possible in camera. Well-planned and photographed source pictures are a much better option than doing excessive work in Photoshop. In my opinion, camera work will always have better quality and look better than something put together in Photoshop. If you do the photography really well you could technically just print your pictures, cut out the parts you want with scissors and paste them onto an empty piece of paper and be done with it. This is of course not possible, but I find it to be a good reference to have in mind when planning my composites. In reality, I would say I spend about an equal amount of time behind the camera and in front of the computer, although sometimes I can fiddle with the finishing touches in Photoshop for hours.
Do you have any habits that are part of your creative process? When conceptualizing ideas for a photograph, what do you usually do to best translate your thoughts into images?
I don’t believe creativity is something that “strikes” you, but rather something you have to work actively on. I’m nowhere near close to fully understanding my own creative process, but I do have a workflow I follow.
I try to schedule creative sessions of one or two hours a couple of times each week where I don’t do any actual work. In these sessions, I shield myself from the outside world and the distractions of everyday life and try to come up with ideas. I believe for creativity to happen I need to be in a calm, playful and open mindset where I can focus and hear myself think. This is easier said than done; it takes a lot of effort to force yourself to take this time to not think about or do anything else.
How I come up with specific ideas is hard to describe and very different from time to time. Basically, I just let my mind wander and sketch down ideas in a notebook. Sometimes I start with a visual aspect, like something I photographed or something in front of me (I’ve noticed there are a lot of hands in my pictures for this reason), but most of the time I start with a thought or a feeling and take it from there. It is very much an unconscious flow and all I really can do is try and make time for it.
When I have an idea for a picture, I let it rest for a couple of days, keeping it in the back of my head. It’s seldom the absolute first idea that is the “best.” If I keep thinking about it, I can usually develop it into something more.
When I have a somewhat finished idea of what I want to do, I proceed by photographing the source material and then putting it all together in Photoshop and proof printing.
What do you do when you hit a wall during your creative process?
I usually take a step back and try to fill up on inspiration. Another trick I use is to just keep creating, without any pressure or goal, just going through the motions. I find it better to work with directions instead of goals; “Today I am going to spend four hours working with pictures,” instead of “Today I am going to create some really good work.”
Do you have a quote or mantra that always gets you fired up?
What you do with the time that is given you is so important, and that is a concept that holds strong to me. Time is the only resource that is guaranteed to run out for you; you can’t get spent time back. I try hard to keep in mind that time is invaluable, and that motivates me to try and do the best I can of each moment. It helps me being motivated, but it also helps me appreciate, and be present in, any situation.
What book would you recommend to other creatives/artists?
It’s hard to recommend a book for someone else, since we are all in different places and needs different things. A universal tip would be to learn something new, to add something new to your skill set that can be usable. Maybe a book on sales, marketing or economics?
When we first interviewed you back in 2014, you had recently finished the series titled Reality Rearranged and were working on Solitaire. What was your biggest triumph making these series? What was your greatest struggle?
The Reality Rearranged series was my first try at describing reality through surrealism. During the two and a half years I worked on the series, I used my own inner life, thoughts and feelings as seeds to my pictures. In that sense the work is very personal, almost like a visual diary. This was my first try at working focused with a coherent body of work over a longer period of time and I learned a lot both technically and about how to work as an artist.
As for the biggest triumph, in this work I found something I love doing. The greatest struggle, I think was, and still is, time. There are only so many hours in a day, and to be able to practice my art I have had to sacrifice a lot of other things. My kind of artistic work can also be lonely, by its nature it’s something I can’t do together with other people. In the end though, it’s worth it because I love doing it and as the years have gone by, I’ve become better at balancing my life.
When the last interview was made, I had just become a dad to a wonderful little daughter. The four years that has passed since then has been a time of profound change for me, and I am in many ways a very different person now than I was then. I think that this is slowly starting to show through my art as well. I have just ended a period where I took six months off from creating to clear my mind and to explore other parts of life. I have now started on a new project, in color, that I will release after the summer.
Jen is the Editor-in-Chief of PHLEARN Magazine, where she helps shape inspiring stories and handy tips for aspiring and seasoned photographers. She has worked as a photography writer for many years, contributing to numerous industry-leading publications. Proudly Canadian, sometimes globetrotter, self-taught photographer, Jen is temporarily settled in Spain.