How Did They Do That: Drifting Away

Harrison Jacobs


Berlin-based Erik Johansson is a visual artist. Photography just happens to be one of the tools he uses to create his pieces. His surreal photorealistic pieces are as much a product of his work on the computer as they are anything he does in camera.

“I basically learned retouching before I learned to shoot,” Johansson says.

Johansson has always been interested in visual expression. Before he received his first digital camera in 2000, he liked to draw and work on the computer. When he began working with a camera, it was natural for him to combine his drawing, his computer work and his photography into one.

He began with constructing simple montages in Photoshop—taking photographs of his family and putting them into different settings or modifying the coloration. It was his creative outlet while he studied computer engineering. The ideas and projects became more complex and he developed a surrealist style that was reminiscent of two of his favorite artists— Salvador Dali and Henri Magritte.

When he put the images online to get feedback, advertising agencies called, asking him to do retouching jobs. The jobs started small—one of the first had him put swimming pools into photographs of gardens for a swimming pool manufacturer— but as he got experience, he got better and the jobs got bigger. He has now done work for Adobe Creative Cloud, the School of Visual Arts, and a number of international corporate clients. Even so, his primary passion is his personal projects.

“Doing personal work is important for controlling the types of commissioned assignments I get,” explains Johansson. “If I work in a certain theme, then that is the type of commissioned work I will do as well. It is an investment and a nice way to explore.”

Every one of Johansson’s projects begins with an intense round of preparation. He comes up with an idea and sketches it in his notebook to figure out what he wants it to look like. After the initial brainstorming, it may be months before he actually works on an idea. This is because he often doesn’t know exactly where he is going to shoot or what elements he needs to complete a project the way he sees it.

Johansson came up with the idea for “Drifting Away” (pictured above) almost a year before he ended up working on it. He was unsure what he wanted the bottle in the image to look like or where to find the idyllic town inside the bottle. That changed when he found the perfect bottle at a flea market in Berlin.

After finding the bottle, he was confident that he could complete the project. He bought a cheap underwater casing for his camera and set out to a nearby lake to shoot the bottle in the water. Despite doing a number of shots of the bottle in the water (shooting both above the water line and below), Johansson did not end up using the images. For the final shot, he ended up using separate images of the lake and the bottle.

Johansson believes that it is very important to actually shoot what you are going to create even if you never use the source images. He uses the images as reference shots to model his composite after. For this shot, he wanted to see how the bottle refracted the light underwater.

For the town inside the bottle, Johansson gave up on finding the perfect town. Instead he went into the countryside and shot particular buildings and trees that he liked. He then collected the images together to create the town in post-production.

When he had all of his source images, he brought them all into Photoshop and began working. To create the image, he used simple techniques such as layers, masks, and cloning to blend all of his images together into the composite. All in all, he used 120 layers in this single image.

“I’m not using any secret techniques in Photoshop,” says Johansson. “It’s always about getting good material and planning it well.”

Johansson’s style demonstrates how one can create the most complex images using just the basic techniques and tools of Photoshop. Each image he creates is the result of hard work and an obsessive commitment to detail. After he has brought each image to approximately 90% done, he leaves it for a few weeks.

“When you work with something for that many hours, it’s really hard to see it in a way that makes you see what is good or not so good,” says Johansson.

After leaving it for a few weeks, he comes back with fresh eyes to finish it.
Johansson made a very cool video of his process for “Drifting Away.” You can see it below:




PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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