Erik Johansson is a full time photographer and retoucher from Sweden based in Berlin, Germany. Erik works on both personal and commissioned projects and sometimes creates street illusions. Erik doesn’t capture moments, he captures ideas.
He has spoken at a TED conference, and worked for company’s such as Adobe and Microsoft. Join us as we pick Erik’s brain, learn about his process, and have a behind the scenes look at his sketches and editing process.
How did you become interested in photography?
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember, I guess I just like that way of expressing myself. I got my first digital camera in 2000 and right away it felt like I wanted to do something more with my photos than just capturing a scene. I wanted it to be a process like when I did my drawings. That’s how I discovered photo manipulations.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
I really like creating surreal scenes making impossible places look realistic. I actually get more influenced by painters than photographers. For example Escher, Dali and Magritte.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by all kinds of things. I follow a lot of inspiration blogs and I really enjoy scanning Deviant art for new creative work. I think it’s just amazing to see the great amounts of creative work that’s available through the Internet. But I also get inspired by all kinds of regular day activities, something I see or experience, I think inspiration is rather about thinking and reflecting over the things you see and just trying to imagine how it could be different. A lot of my ideas gets born that way.
On average, how long does it take you to create an image?
Normally a few months from initial idea to final image. But I do work on some projects in parallel. I think that it’s important that it takes time. As soon as I come up with a new idea I try to leave it for a few weeks and then come back to it to see if I still like it. The planning and finding the right location is what takes the most time. Then it’s just about capturing the material and putting the puzzle together. The way I work in photoshop is actually not that complicated, everything is about the planning and the material you have to work with.
What is your favorite photo that you have ever taken?
It’s always the next one. After working for so long with just one photo I just want to put it up on my website and move on to the next project. I’m a perfectionist and always try to challenge myself to realize new ideas. When I’ve reached perfection I can quit.
At Chalmers University of Technology you studied computer engineering, and graduated with a masters in Interaction Design.
How does this background help you as a photographer?
Not really any particular tool or way of doing something but defiantly the way of thinking and approaching photography. I see my photography as problem solving, trying to figure out how to realize something impossible. Like it could have been captured.
What is your equipment list?
For most projects I use a Canon 5d mark II mostly with the Canon 24-70 lens. I also have a Canon 17-40, Canon 70-200 and Canon 50/1.4. But for 90% of the time I shoot with the 24-70 on the wide end. For bigger projects I rent a Hasselblad and I think that’s where I’m going for the future.For postproduction I use a home build PC running windows 7 Eizo screens, Wacom tablet and of course Photoshop and Lightroom.
How has growing up in the Swedish countryside shaped how you approach a photograph?
It’s hard to say as I can’t compare it to growing up at any different place. But I really like calmness, nature and quality of light shaping the landscape. Although I live in Berlin now I often come back to Sweden for shooting landscapes and scenes. The contrast between these worlds is very inspiring.
On occasion, you engage yourself in creating public works of art. How did this come to be?
I got involved in a project by Microsoft called Generation 7 in 2011 where I got the opportunity to realize one of my dream projects. I had seen many street artists doing 3d pavement illusions, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could do something similar but as a photographic print. So in June 2011 I created a 300 square meter print illusion of a hole in the ground in the middle of Stockholm.
What was it like, to work with such big companies like Microsoft and Google?
Really great and I was really happy to get a lot of creative freedom as well while working with them. I find it just amazing that they like my work and want to work with me.
Out of pure curiosity, what image of yours has the most layers? and how many?
The newer photos tend to have more and more layers. I think set them free and cut & fold has around 100-150 layers. But then there are smart objects among those containing even more layers. In total the files become quite heavy but I want to preserve as much as possible to be able to modify every part without losing any information. In the end I create a flattened copy of the file, but I still keep the photoshop file for the future.
Do you sketch your ideas beforehand?
Yes, I always create sketches of my ideas. Usually very simple and rough, just to capture the idea.
Do you have any projects planned for the future?
I have some ideas I would like to try out this summer. Maybe a collection of images on the same topic. I would also like to work more on film side creating more of a story around my images.
In your work, you do not use stock photos. What is the reason for this choice?
I want to be in total control of every part of the image, I also want to feel like I’ve created the image from scratch. In a way it’s also limiting in a good way, I actually have to create images based on the environment I live in and can access with a camera.
If you would like to see Erik’s process of editing Cut & Fold (the above photo) you can view the video below.
In November of 2011, you spoke at a TED Talk in London. Can you tell us about this experience?
It was an amazing opportunity to come there and speak. I’ve got a lot of positive feedback from it. I think sharing the work process and reflecting on your own work is great way to evolve as an artist. I hope that I can inspire someone along the way just as I get inspired by watching other artist work. You can view the TED talk here.
What is your proudest moment as a photographer?
Being asked to speak at the TED conference was a great honor and some kind of recognition. But also that a lot of people take their time to contact me just to say that they like my work, it keeps me going!
You are incredibly talented, especially within the realms of Photoshop. How did you learn these skills?
I’m actually mostly self taught, I think photoshop is a great program to learn by trying. Everyone uses it from beginner to professionals, and I actually still learn a lot of new small ways of doing things every time I work on a new image. If you find a tool that you can’t figure out there are tons of recourses online and in magazines. But I don’t really use any super advanced techniques, it’s a lot about the material you have to work with and having a vision of what you want to create and imagine what it should look like. It’s a stack of layers blended together with curve layers and layer masks.
How does working on commissioned work differ from working on your own personal pieces?
My personal work has no limit in time or imagination. But other than that the process it is not that different except I sometimes have to use stock images for some parts of the image. Sometimes I get to realize someone else’s idea instead or just do the retouch part. But for most projects I’m involved in the whole process from the idea to the final image. I always strive for perfection no matter if it’s commissioned or personal work. In the end I think these two will blend together a lot more.
When shooting, how many people are there to help?
For personal work it’s usually quite simple, I mostly shoot friends and handle most of the things around it myself. For commissioned work it depends but usually one or two extra people handling the light and computer. I like to keep it simple.
What advice would you give someone looking to pursue a career in photography as a photo manipulator?
To me the personal work is what gives me most of my jobs. Try to find a style that you like and create a bunch of personal projects both for reference and learning. Be visible online, get critique on your work to improve. And most important HAVE FUN!!! It’s not about the equipment, it’s about your imagination.
What have you overcome to get where you are today?
A lot of hours spent in Photoshop, fear of being without a job for times.