Erik Johansson: I want to make people stop and think about my photos

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Erik Johansson (1985) is a Swedish photographer and retoucher, self- made man, who currently lives and works in Prague and is an author of incredibly beautiful surrealistic photos, where he connects two worlds. He graduated from university in Gothenburg and has master degree in Interactive design. He was very approachable and helpful and despite his busy schedule, the interview was completed within couple of weeks.

Are you self–made photographer or did you study any art school?

I studied computer engineer at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden 2005-2010. I graduated in 2010 with a master in Interaction Design. I've always had a big interest for both drawing and computers. I think that is one if the reasons why it was a natural step for me to modify the photos in the computer. Photography and retouch always felt more like a hobby so I choose the engineering path instead. As I finished my studies in 2010, I already worked part time as a freelance doing work for some smaller jobs for advertisement agencies in Sweden. Although I still find interaction design and UX a very interesting subject, photography and retouch is my passion, and what I love. That made me become photographer/retoucher on fulltime when I graduated. I am self-taught in both photography and retouch. I discovered, that it was fun to change and modify photos for fun in the year 2000 when I got my first digital camera. I've always been drawing for as long as I can remember and when I got the camera, I felt like I wanted to do something more with the photos. I started playing around with the photos in the computer and discovered photo manipulations. For me the realism has always been very important and it’s a challenge to make a sketch come to life in a photo. I learned by trying, it took some time and I'm still learning but when you learn the basics of the tools it’s just the imagination that sets the limits.

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How do you make such beautiful photos? Any set routine?

The whole process can be divided into three different parts. I always start with a sketch, a simple idea. Not many ideas get realized, maybe one out of ten, but if I think it’s good enough, I decide try to make it happen. The first part is planning. Once I’ve come up with an idea that I think is good enough to realize I need to find the places I need to shoot to put the photo together. This can take anywhere between a few days to several months, sometimes years. This is the most important step as it defines the look and feel of the photo, it’s my raw material. This step also includes problem solving, how to make the perspective, reflections, materials and lights etc. realistic. The second part is shooting/collecting the material. I never use stock photography in my personal projects, I always want to be in complete control of my photos and feel like I've done everything myself. It limits me in a way that I can’t realize all ideas I have, but limitations are good sometimes to define the work. The same light and perspective is extremely important to create a realistic result when combining the photos. The final part is putting the photos together. This takes anything from a few days to several weeks.  This is actually the easiest step, if I did a good job in the first and second step. This part is like a puzzle, I have all the pieces, I just need to put them together?

One of my greatest inspirations is Salvator Dalí

Where do you find inspiration?

I get inspiration from all things around me. Anything from things I see in my daily life to other artist’s work and music. I think it’s a lot about looking at the world from a different perspective. I get more inspiration from painters rather than photographers. One of my greatest inspirations is Salvator Dalí.

Have you ever found out that the idea is beyond your reach, simply you would not be skilled enough to fulfil that?

I get ideas all the time, not all of them are realized, as I said earlier, not even one in ten. As I always shoot everything myself, I have to choose the ones, I'm actually able to find locations for. Every time a new idea pops up, I put them in a book and save them for later, maybe I can realize them some day. I am very self-critical person. Sometimes, I think of improvements of the finalized images, but I never allow myself to change them. I want to look forward and the flaws are signs of improvements, I hope I never get satisfied, I think that's very dangerous for an artist. I always want to go forward and find the new problems, which I can solve.

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What do you want to say by your images?

I want to make people stop and think. Each picture has its own story, which is not necessarily mine, but people can use their fantasy and develop the whole picture according to their wish. If my pictures inspire anybody or make people happy, I will be very satisfied.

It is very important not to copy anyone, try to find our own style, do what we want, what makes us happy and not what we think people would like to see.

In some of your pictures, we feel some kind of isolation. Does it reflect your view at current world?

I have thought about it also but can´t do a lot about it, since it is how the ideas come to my mind. I like to put a human into my pictures, where he works and reacts at what is happening around him. Sometimes the topics are so absurd that I incorporate a humour into them and let people to interpret my work, as they want to. I don´t put any messages into my pictures I only put names to them.

If someone with fat cheque approached you and asked you to give him a licence for any of his products, would you accept it?

No, I don't licence my personal work. All my personal projects are not to be commercialized or connected to any product or brand in any way. It' s important to me that they are stand- alone projects without a connection to anything.

Do you work full time with photography and retouch?

Yes, I try to find time to work with personal projects as well but the commissioned projects are what I do for a living. Although my personal projects are what I love it’s fun and challenging to realize other people´s ideas as well. Sadly, I don’t spend as much time on my personal work as I would like to.

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How long does it usually take to realize one photo from idea to final piece?

It can take anything from a few weeks to several months. Some ideas require even longer time as it’s hard to find the perfect spot to shoot or maybe it’s the wrong season. For commissioned projects with a hard deadline, it's of course usually faster, normally a few weeks from "go" to final image.

The type of images you make doesn't seem to leave much room for improvisation. How do you build a photograph?

That is true, it takes a lot of time to plan these images, in fact it's a majority of the time I spend on each image, planning is everything. It always starts with a sketch, a simple idea, then I start thinking about where I can photograph it and how I can light the scene and make sure that all the parts will come together well.

How would you describe your style?

Photo realistic surrealism. Surreal ideas realized in a realistic way with a touch of humor. I can’t really say that I've decided what I want my style to look like. It becomes what it becomes, I just realize the ideas that come to my mind and I didn't chose develop a specific style to make that happen.

Learning by trying is not always the fastest way, but at least you really learn how the tools work

What would you advice somebody, who would like to follow your steps?

Don’t wait for the perfect idea, just go out and shoot. I still learn something new for every project I do and the only way to become good is to spend a lot of time doing what you want to become good at. Learning by trying is not always the fastest way, but at least you really learn how the tools work.

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Maybe your fans would like to know what equipment do you use?

I use software Adobe Photoshop CC and Adobe Lightroom, ordinary PC with program Windows 10. Monitor Eizo Coloredge CG 318-4k, camera Hasselblad H6D-50c, lenses Hasselblad 24 mm, 35-90 mm, 50mm and 120mm, lights Elinchrom RX and Canon Speedlites. On internet, there are tons of websites and blogs which advice people in all they need to know. It only requires time, will and patience and you will find everything there.

Why did you choose Prague, cost of living or more chance to shoot interesting pics on picturesque landscapes?

I was living in Berlin before Prague and I met a girl from Prague that made me start traveling here. I fell in love with the city and it turns out it's also a pretty good place both to live and work, I photograph a lot of my projects in Sweden still but also more and more in Czech Republic these days! The nature here is beautiful with all its hills and mountains, very magical to me, just as I want my work to be!

When somebody from, say, Taiwan or Kenya sends you his ideas for the artwork, how does it work, he tells you roughly what he wants, you do the pre- layout, he okays it and then you get for actual shooting etc? Then you send him PDF image via email or proper photo via post and he pays?

When it comes to commissioned work, I only do big advertising campaigns, in this case the client or agency usually comes with a sketch to me and then we discuss how to realize it together. I only do around three commissioned projects a year, the rest if for my own work.

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Did you use any Czech images in your pictures, I would guess that one picture with houses between rocks was made from Pravčická brána, but only my guess?

Yes, some are shot here, such as:

May we know-roughly- how much does the commissioned picture cost when you worked on it for two months?

Every project is different, so it´s really hard to say, but the budgets are usually high.

When you get commissioned job, who sets the deadline, client or you? When he sets unrealistic deadline do you tell him it´s impossible and he must give you more time or you walk off the deal?

Even before signing the estimate and making sure, we are going to do the project, all deadlines are agreed upon, and of course, we have to let the client know that it takes time to finish the work. But everything is very well planned and the deadline is usually not a problem.

Thank you very much.

Photos, thanx: Erik Johansson