Erik Johansson creates realistic photos of impossible scenes—capturing ideas, not moments in time
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIK JOHANSSON
In one world, the Moon revolves around the Earth in a near-circular orbit. That moon pulls the tides, eclipses the Sun.
In another world—seen in “Full Moon Service,” opening spread—human workers dressed in white hang the moon anew each night. They select that moon from a collection of glowing globes inside a little white truck, then climb a ladder and affix their choice to its place in the nocturnal sky.
Warped realities and shifting perspectives define the work of photographer Erik Johansson, who grew up on a pig farm outside the little Swedish town of Götene, where huge flat vistas left plenty of room for his imagination. As a child, he already preferred to let his own inventiveness steer his thoughts. “I never liked reading the words,” Johansson recalls of the picture books at the local library. “I loved looking at the art and making stories of my own.”
A sensible farmer’s son, Johansson planned at first to become a computer programmer. But a university education only added fuel to his artistic inclinations. Instead of turning him into a coder, it caused him to ponder the fluidity of reality and the strangeness of the cosmos beyond. By tweaking the laws of physics just slightly, Johansson dreamed of creating “a place that did not exist, but could.”
Digital cameras and imaging software provided a way: He began conceiving and producing images the way a high-concept film director constructs a mise-en-scène. He selects props, choses locations, and orchestrates every detail to achieve the effects he wants. Each finished work can take months to perfect, from concept to shoots to Photoshop manipulations, from beginning to end.
To produce “Full Moon Service,” for instance, Johansson went to the Götene countryside with his equipment and a cast of extras, giving them big Chinese lanterns containing portable lights and ladders to climb. “I know the Moon is a big rock, but I like to question that—the Moon might be a magical fire, it might be changed each night by some kind of service team,” he says. “It’s about deconstructing the world as it is, finding unexpected perspectives, questioning logic. These are not really just images, they are ideas.”
The key is photo-realism. “At the end of the work,” he says, “I want it to look like it could have been captured somehow, as a photograph.” That requires the kind of resourcefulness and effort he put into creating the image he calls “Impact” (page 100), in which a man in a canoe appears to have shattered the surface of a lake. Johannson started with a photograph of a lake. He took others of a man with a canoe and paddle. He bought some old wall mirrors from a gym near the family farm and took them to a glasser, who cut them into a variety of shapes. Then he photographed the mirror pieces in a quarry. The result, after Johansson’s painstaking manipulation, is a stunning visual illusion.
Johannson wields a Hasselblad H6D-50c digital camera and holds himself to three essential rules: Photos to be combined must have the same perspective. They must have the same qualities of light: color, contrast, and brightness. And in the final work it must be impossible to distinguish where the different images begin and end, or exactly how the image was composed—the illusion must be seamless.
Although Johansson still shoots most of his raw images near Götene, he moved to the “chill” city of Prague in the Czech Republic a few years back, after falling in love. The city has a great a long tradition of film production, so it’s easier and cheaper to build sets, he explains.
No matter where you live, reinventing reality isn’t just an exercise in Photoshop—it’s hard physical work. “I’m a farmer inside a photographer’s body,” Johannson explains. “There are no shortcuts.” Each day he rises early, arrives on location, and takes shot after shot until he has the raw material to reassemble the world.