There’s a video on YouTube where guys in a van prank people at a bus stop in Stockholm. The guys have replaced a poster in the shelter with a flat screen monitor. From inside the van, one snaps photos of people waiting for the bus. Another sits at a computer, manipulating the photos. The images appear on the monitor – stretched, altered, falling into a bottle or standing on a wedding cake. The people are surprised and delighted. The guys in the van, parked nearby, are pleased. It’s all in fun.
So far, the video has been viewed almost 28 million times.
The guy at the computer was Swedish photographer Erik Johansson. He makes the real look surreal. In his large-scale photographs, fish swim through the sky, towns perch precariously on tall hourglass-shaped rocks in the sea, and sound waves from an old gramophone resolve into a landscape of trees reflected in a lake. Clouds come from shearing sheep. Breezes carry poofs of fluffy wool up a wooden ramp and into the sky. You can see it in his photograph, “Cumulus and Thunder,” and the closer you get, the more real it looks.
Twenty-eight of Johansson’s photographs, including seven new works, are on display at the American Swedish Institute. “I want people to be able to go up close and study the images,” he said at a press preview on Friday. It’s like studying the brush strokes in a painting, except there are no brush strokes.
This is Johansson’s first show in the United States, though his work is already known here through the internet. His Instagram account has 125,000 followers. His images are shared widely on Tumblr and Pinterest. His website includes a selection of behind-the-scenes videos showing how he creates them. His YouTube channel has more.
Some of the videos are part of the exhibition at ASI. Stills from his process are also on display. He documents his work in detail, and he’s astonishingly transparent.
Johansson is not a trained photographer, and he didn’t study art in school. He studied computer engineering. He calls himself a photographer and retoucher. The camera is his tool, the computer his canvas. Each image is a puzzle assembled from many individual photographs, all of which he took himself, and dozens, sometimes hundreds of Photoshop layers he created, with the joins smoothed into invisibility. He never uses stock photos or CGI.
“It’s more fun to do it for real,” he said. “It looks better if you do it for real. … The closer I can get to real, the better it is. I’d rather go out and photograph someone in the field than try to fix them on the computer.”
For most of us, taking a photograph is about capturing a moment. “I capture ideas,” Johansson said. Every image starts as an idea. Ideas can come from anywhere, and he sketches them promptly so he doesn’t forget them. Once he decides to develop an idea, he gathers the parts and pieces he needs to put it together: a sky in Sweden, rocks in the Faroe Islands, a landscape in Iceland, mirror shards, his own electric guitar, a corked glass bottle floating in water (shot underwater, with his camera covered in plastic). Then he goes to work in Photoshop, which he’s been learning since 2000. (“I think there are people who are better than me,” he modestly said in one of his videos.)
Johansson’s images are visually pleasing, provocative and often witty. All tell stories. Several include small red houses “because houses look like that in Sweden.” The people are calm and matter-of-fact, as if it’s perfectly normal to walk a large dog who’s suspended by balloons, or paint a boardwalk so blue that it becomes the sea, or be cycling along and suddenly arrive at a precipitously vertical turn in the road. Sometimes they look mildly surprised.
About his work, Johansson said, “In the beginning, 10 years ago, it was more playful. I just tried to explore to see what I can do. Today I want to plan it well before I start working. A lot is inspired by urbanization, climate, and the way we affect our environment. Things happening around the world … I feel sometimes that time is running out. It makes me think about how we should focus on things that are important.”
Johansson was taking questions, so we asked: What kinds of dreams do you have?
“Normal dreams. I think everyone is born creative. If you look at children, they can make a game out of almost anything. I never stopped thinking as a child, having a childish way of thinking, trying to find silly combinations between things and practicing that all the time.”
“Imagine: Surreal Photography by Erik Johansson” is on display in the Osher Gallery and the Turnblad Mansion through April 28.
Tonight (Thursday, Jan. 31) at the Heights: “The Bad Seed.” The perfect combination of campy and chilling, Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 classic about a child serial killer never gets old. Bad little Rhoda! In B&W. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10).
Tonight at Jazz Central: Black HERstory concert: A Musical Journey with the Give Get Sistet. The Sistet is Libby Turner, Aimee K. Bryant, Sarah M. Greer, Jayanthi Kyle, Mankwe Ndosi and Alicia Steele – an expandable a cappella improvisational chorus of women based in the Twin Cities with ties around the world. The roof of the basement jazz club will rise as they share an evening of songs, improvisations and stories inspired by two powerful black women from history, Queen Nanny of the Maroons and Biddy Mason. 8 p.m. $10 at the door, $5 for students with ID.
Friday and Saturday at Orchestra Hall: Jane Glover conducts the Minnesota Orchestra. The celebrated British conductor (and author) makes her Minnesota Orchestra debut with a program that includes Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, with violin phenom Karen Gomyo; Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concert in C major, featuring the orchestra’s own Roma Duncan; Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and Bizet’s First Symphony. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30-107). If you’re reading this early Thursday, there’s a coffee concert this morning at 11 a.m. Glover returns Saturday for an hourlong Symphony in 60 concert that includes everything but the Mozart (so no Karen Gomyo). Come for the preshow happy hour and stay to mingle with musicians after the performance. 6 p.m. FMI and tickets ($32).
Opens in previews Friday at the Park Square: “Antigone.” The Greek myths and plays are endlessly worth revisiting and reinterpreting. Thousands of years old, which is kind of mind-boggling, they’re still great stories. As one ensemble of women explores Medea’s story at the Illusion, another ensemble of women and women-identifying actors will take on Sophocles’ “Antigone” at the Park Square. Adapted and directed by MJ Kedrowski, who first staged the play at Theatre Coup d’Etat in 2016, it’s told in modern language, with script and action devised by the actors. Park Square’s advisory notes that “unlike most versions of Greek theatre where the action happens off stage, this version places those things onstage, including suicide, simulated violence, mild adult language, and women speaking their mind.” 8 p.m. on the Boss Stage. Previews Feb. 1-7, opening night Feb. 8. FMI and tickets (previews $20-37, regular run $25-60). Closes March 3.
Tuesday (Feb. 5) at the Black Dog: Daisy Johnson with Curtis Sittenfeld. Johnson’s book “Everything Under,” which was published by Graywolf, came that close to winning the 2018 Man Booker Prize. (She was the youngest writer ever to be shortlisted.) Johnson will be in conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld, who just last week sat down with British author Tessa Hadley at Magers & Quinn. Reception at 6 p.m., reading and conversation at 7, book signing to follow. Presented by SubText Books. (“Everything Under,” btw, is based on the Oedipus myth.)