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Photographer adds a touch of wonder to works: Swedish artist Erik Johansson brings his imagination to life

June 05,2019
Swedish photographer Erik Johansson poses for a picture at his “Impossible is Possible” exhibition at the Hangaram Art Museum in the Seoul Arts Center, southern Seoul, on Tuesday. The photographer is best known for creating surrealistic images using photo manipulation techniques. [PARK SANG-MOON]
From top, “Full Moon Service” (2017), “Impact” (2016) and “The Architect” (2015). Johansson takes photographs of all the elements in his pictures - models, props and landscapes - before piecing them together. [ERIK JOHANSSON]
Like surrealist masters Salvador Dali and Maurits Escher, Swedish photographer Erik Johansson makes the impossible possible in his works.

In “Full Moon Service” (2017), for example, a worker climbs up a ladder to install a bright moon in the sky in the dead of night. Johansson, also hailed as one of the world’s best photo manipulators by fans, creates these otherworldly images by piecing together individual shots of different models and props.

“It’s more playful than imagining the moon just being a big giant rock floating in space around the Earth,” Johansson told the Korea JoongAng Daily during an interview in Seoul ahead of the launch of his exhibition “Impossible is Possible” on Tuesday.

The exhibition, held at the Seoul Arts Center in celebration of the 60th year anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Sweden, will be Johansson’s largest solo show yet.

The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q. How did you get into surrealist photography?

. I started this for fun when I got my first digital camera in 2000. For the first 10 years it was more a way to play around. Over time, I started posting them online and I noticed that people seemed to actually like them.

I’ve always been fascinated by surrealism and inspired by surrealist painters. When I got my camera it felt a bit strange to just take pictures and be done. I experimented a lot, and after some time I started to feel confident with the tools to be able to tell the stories that I wanted.

How do you get ideas for your photographs?

I think it’s more about trying to see connections in my daily life. The ideas aren’t usually born in an instant and I have to rethink and make them interesting. So it’s usually a long process. I always try to sketch it down because if I don’t I’ll just forget and it’s gone.

Do you want the situations in your works to happen in reality?

In some cases it can be quite dangerous. I think it’s more about the symbolism in the works. With the man walking off [the platform] with the balloon in his hand in “Leap of Faith” (2018), it’s more about being able to dare to do it even if it seems dangerous and you don’t know what will happen. That’s what I wanted to capture, that exact moment when there’s no turning back. But you don’t really know what will happen next. Maybe he’ll fly away or maybe he’ll fall. But I think replacing moons at “Full Moon Service,” for example, can be quite fun.

Why do you never use stock photography in your works?

I guess it would be possible to find something for some parts. But I feel like using stock photography also has limitations because those photos are from certain angles in a certain light. I’m trying to capture everything in the most consistent way possible and usually the best way to do that is to shoot everything myself.

I usually try to shoot what is around me, the environment around Sweden and Prague, the Czech Republic, where I live now.

What was the craziest thing you’ve done to get the right picture?

Once I needed this really high angle maybe around 5 meters [16.4 feet] to 10 meters up. And I had this big, heavy camera and I couldn’t really put it on a drone because I didn’t know how to fly it. So I bought a tall light stand and I just put the camera on it.

I’m trying more these days to use props and real objects because I think it’s easier for the model to interact with and it looks more realistic as well.

Most of your works feature human models. Why is that?

For me it’s a way to create some point of reference both in terms of the scale of the image but also in terms of making people feel like they could be that person. That’s also why in a lot of the works people are turned in toward the image. I manipulate the images quite a lot, but I don’t manipulate the people in it because it’s important to me that it’s normal people.

How has your childhood or education shaped your works today?

I studied computer engineering and I think this way of thinking - the problem solving approach to art - is something that shaped the way I create my works.

But also growing up on a farm and always being close to nature was inspiring. Where I grew up was flat. Just walking around and looking out into the fields gives me a sense of endless possibilities. My parents also worked a lot, so you learn to be very disciplined even though you’re an artist.

I read a lot of children’s books as a kid, especially the richly-illustrated ones. In a way they’re my biggest inspiration, because that’s the kind of stories I want to tell.

What kind of reactions do you want people to have when they see your work?

I like to walk around in [my] exhibitions and just listen to people. I just hope people will enjoy and take the opportunity to go close and look at details because it’s something that you normally won’t see on the website.

I really like how children look at the work and how they describe it because they have such an open mind.

How do you see your work evolving?

For the past three or four years, I’ve started to become a lot more aware of light and colors in a way I didn’t think of before. Maybe I’ll even move into some kind of film or moving images.

I’m also trying to put some magic back into the world because I think it’s a problem these days that you live in a world where everything can be explained. I think we just need some magic or thinking of the world in a more silly way, like children.

What term do you prefer - master photographer or photoshopper?

To be honest I’m somewhere in between. There isn’t a really good title for it, but I see myself more as a photographer than a photoshopper.

Photoshop is a very important part of my workflow. I wouldn’t really be able to work in the same way without it. But with photography, that’s what decides what the image will look like: if I plan it well, shoot it well, the [editing] part is just to [put] those pieces together. And these days I’m trying to build the scenes as much as possible out in the open and in the field. It’s more about trying to capture that scene.

BY KIM EUN-JIN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]

“Impossible is Possible” runs daily until Sept. 15 at the Hangaram Art Museum in the Seoul Arts Center, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The museum is closed the last Monday of every month. Tickets cost 12,000 won ($10) for adults.