Monday, 24 January 2011

Research: Erik Johansson

 Fishy Island, By Erik Johansson, 2009

Everyone seems to be picking Erik Johansson as one of their manipulation research subjects (well...two people! But that doesn't make for a great sweeping statement to open a post with does it?) I don't think this points to a lack of other interesting subjects, it's simply that his humour, level of innovation, and the sheer amount of detail he puts in to his images, makes him stand out from the crowd. By the way, my swedish isn't as good as it should be, so you'll have to forgive me if some of the names of pictures are wrong, I had to use a translator.

Johansson is a swedish computer engineering student and photographer who specialises in the manipulation of photographs. He received his first camera when he was fifteen and dabbled with the manipulation of his photographs then, but only began to seriously look at the manipulation process when he bought a DSLR in 2007. Amazingly, he is entirely self taught! By playing around with the various settings in photoshop CS4 (now CS5), and doing the occasional online tutorial, he's managed to master the art of photo manipulation in an incredibly short time. His early pictures were all taken with a Canon EOS 40D, but he has recently upgraded to a 5D. Although he uses a number of different lenses from the Canon L series, his favourite is the 17-40mm F4L.

Lighting wise, he initially tried to use the available natural light, but as his composition's got more complex, he needed a greater level of control over each segment, so he started using on and off camera flash.

Apparently he always starts the process by making a quick sketch of the idea. He then goes out and takes all the photographs he thinks he'll need, before bringing them home and creating a rough approximation of the finished project. Johansson will then spend on average 10-20 hours, evolving and refining this initial image in photoshop, before completing a picture he's satisfied with.

Although he has a broad range of influences and inspirations, the most obvious is surrealist art, and M C Escher in particular. A lot of Johansson's manipulations deal with the alteration of angles, Sometimes subtle and other times far more complex, he seems to enjoy manipulating the senses as well as the photograph. The picture below is a good example of this:

 Perspective Squarecase, By Erik Johansson

This image is clearly inspired by Escher's pictures of impossible staircase's, such as ascending and descending:

Ascending And Descending, By M C Escher, 1960

His pictures are so cleverly and subtly manipulated, that it can sometimes be difficult to discern exactly what's artificial, and what isn't, so bear with me while I try to explain the process. I'd say the photograph is constructed from at least 9 layers. 1 for the landscape, 1 for the man, 4 for the individual stairs, 1 for the dark underside of the stairs, 1 for the shadows, and 1 for the supports. It's possible the stairs are constructed from several layers as well, such as texture, but I'm not sure. As for what's real in the photograph, again that can be difficult. The landscape is real, and so is the man, but I think the staircase is completely generated in photoshop (I mean completely, not just the weird angles.) 

Although not obvious at first, I think Johansson has split the image using the rule of thirds. He's placed the landscape and horizon in the bottom third, he then uses the lines of the ascending stairs to lead you through the middle third of the picture, before taking you to a point of interest (the man), in the top third. He's also used a landscape devoid of any landmarks, so that the stairs become the focal point of the image.

The next image is also inspired by a surrealist artist:

Border, By Erik Johansson

But this time it's Rene Magritte:

 Personal Values, By Rene Magritte, 1952

Although obviously not a carbon copy of Magritte's painting, Johansson has taken the idea of an inside/outside room, and added his own particular twist. Like the previous photograph I think this is a mixed media composition. The girl on the grass, the window, and the clouds are photographs, but the walls and view outside the window are created in photoshop.

Without Limits, By Erik Johansson

I've included this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it's a great picture, but secondly, because it illustrates that Johansson doesn't just create quirky pictures.

All of his pictures have a dream like quality to them, but this one especially so. The stairs leading out of the shot, the empty landscape against a turbulent sky. They all combine to make a really striking composition. The sepia toning and slight vignetting at the edges also remind me of early cinema. Especially le voyage dans la lune for some reason, but I'm not sure why! That film's not sepia, and there's no rocket, or giant moon with a face...weird how the human brain works.

Compositionally, he's clearly dictated the path the viewer's eye's will travel. By placing the path in the field where he has, and having it lead straight to the base of the stairs, you naturally follow that line, before continuing around the stairway, and to the top of the frame. After that you naturally wonder where it leads, you're imagination filling in the missing space. He's also used the rule of thirds to clearly define the real world of the foreground, and the fantasy world of the staircase in the sky, and like in the squarecase picture, there's only a small section of the the stairs in the foreground third to tie the two sections together.

To make the stairway, he's obviously taken a photographs of a spiral staircase and cut and copied the elements he needs, stitched them together, and added the figure walking up. I can't decide though whether the sky and ground are one photograph or two. the horizon is hazy, and that's either an effect caused by the receding distance, or more likely, Johansson's blurred the line to cover the join.

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