Three hundred million years of deep, dense darkness, dwelling in silence – in space. This was space, in a sense, before the contents of space such as constellations and planets occupied the shadowy stillness. Eruptions of sound waves triggered by tiny variations in the cosmic soup followed. These pressurized waves engaged in four hundred thousand years of interstellar adventure before freezing in place, becoming beacons for what we now identify as stars and galaxies. This is the beginning of the universe. More accurately though, it’s the beginning of what we know about the beginning of the universe. The first evidence of anything existing, the explosive birth of particles known as the “big bang”, is actually only a theory. So, the beginning of everything we know remains an empirical mystery. Thankfully, when it comes to the equally enigmatic yet utterly relatable universes precisely crafted by Erik Johansson, we have answers. “Coming up with a crazy idea isn’t so hard; it’s trying to capture a story in a single frame that makes people interested”, he says.
His single frame storyscapes blend everyday reality with fantasy, creating what Johansson calls “windows into other worlds”. Picture run of the mill delivery vans transporting beautifully hypnotic glowing moons and their head-to-toe white uniformed installers. Brick bridges expectedly straddling streams are at first ordinary but at second glance begin where they end. Johansson’s use of light is masterful, traditional even, but when paired with unexpected components creates something of an eye circus. Each piece is constructed of multiple photographs shot, manipulated and arranged by Johansson producing work that is wild fantasy dosed with the comfort of certainty. Or it’s the other way around. Either way, onlookers are induced into daydreams but spared the anxiety of floating completely out of the atmosphere. To find out exactly how he does it, I took a virtual spacewalk with Johansson, surveying the seemingly endless expansions of his mind and work. With equal parts wisdom and boyish wonder, the architect of such interdimensional portals as Comfort Zones, Full Moon Service, and October 13th wholly satisfied my curiosity.
Hard hook your tether and double seal your space suit because while Johansson’s photographs deliver on those quick, attention grabbing and quintessential concepts of beauty and sensationalism, they’re more than that. Perhaps they’re infinite. Like staring down the barrel of a Mandelbrot before dissolving into one, these surreally real creations go on and on. A detailed checkpoint sits atop weathered asphalt leading directly into chain-linked clouds. The thick bodied attendant is busy writing. A t-shirt and jeans flap on the clothesline of an unremarkable row house, flanked by others and strung together and suspended between two bluffs. Visually, Johansson says, “It’s the combination of trying to create something that can’t exist but also make it look as if it does.” Mission accomplished.
Just when you think you can’t unearth new artifacts on this visual dig, you spot swirl patterned scratches on a mirror. You wonder if Johansson created them pre-production or qualified their perfection in production. He’s capable of both virtuosities. Describing October 13, Johansson catalogs a variety of potential reactions. “The banana peel being almost comical and also, these people carrying a mirror. Like, why are they carrying a mirror and where are they coming from? This black cat symbolizing bad luck in the background. What is the cat’s role in this?” Thank you, Mr. Johansson. Please continue remote viewing my mind. “It’s creating a bit of an absurd scene that makes you wonder what will happen next. Will they step on the banana peel? Why don’t you see them? What’s their expression? Why are they doing it in the middle of the night?” Exactly. Once your eyes have been coaxed into every corner of the picture, you’ll repeat the process with new takeaways.
After that, a new kind of fun begins. The kind where your brain tries to make sense of how a black cat the size of a building looks normal. The kind where you ask the questions Johansson wants you to ask; the ones that not only get at what these strange things are, but what they might mean. All of this, Johansson says, is part of the experience his art is designed to elicit. “I think it’s more interesting to ask questions than give answers. It just makes the image more interesting.” While he concedes you may walk away with something unintended, he hopes to convey a specific message in each piece. He’ll clue you in with clever titles, as carefully curated as the work itself, without giving too much away. This type of contrast is a theme in Erik Johansson’s work; seeking and learning, dark and light, creative freedom and control. Mastering the art of contrast typically reflects the kind of prescriptive balance portrayed in Johansson’s pieces. As I suspected, it’s also unmistakably prevalent in his life.
“I almost feel like it’s more of a lifestyle than a job in a way”, he reflects casually as if a thoughtfully cultivated ethos and all-out commitment to the work are commonplace. A young photography hobbyist turned trained engineer, Johansson seems to have found his sweet spot on the axis of structure and creativity. “I have a mathematical mind, a technical mind”, he says, “but also a visual mind.” The element of balance reveals itself in his artistic process, which, again, isn’t really a process as much as it is a way of life. “It’s about creating an environment where inspiration is possible”. His time in the studio is balanced with traveling, hunting down the latest art exhibitions, running, climbing – all of which are part of his process of creation. This leaves time and opportunity for ideas to surface and be mentally indexed because, “It’s not like you can decide when they come”. Later, Johansson might happen upon the right landscape and begin the 6-10 month process of piecing it all together in a final product. This “flow” as Johansson referred to it is a result of applied discipline to the physical work and to the lifestyle itself, specifically to getting out of comfort zones. While he’s all but mastered his current aesthetic, he’s allowing himself to drift into the world of moving images, trying something new while maintaining something known.
In his gently dichotomous piece, Comfort Zones, Johansson’s siren-like symbolism tenderly invites examination of our own in the most intriguing of ways. A safe, warm glow emanates from steam-streaked panes of a miniature greenhouse. Only now the house is to scale. Its inhabitant’s almost hopeless stare drips in after the rush of seeing her body occupy much of the mass of her dewy, glistening confinement. Wait, the house is tiny; a safe structure sitting atop a marshy meadow. Behind it, sturdy terracotta bluffs facing fresh greenery synergize under pillowy, purple skies. These adventures beckon from the background, if we’ll only avert our eyes from safe places and conceptualize something new and different. Even when pushing past coziness, Johansson takes a balanced approach. “We just have to sometimes take a step out into the unknown. Not always.” Further, Johansson goes on to advise, getting outside of comfort zones is nothing without discipline and a good deal of patience.
Both patience and discipline were staples of survival in Erik Johansson’s journey from hobbyist to professional. “From the time when I started (making) these images to the time when I was able to sell prints – it was years in between”, he recalls. In the year 2000, Johansson was a regular, 15-year-old boy toting a DSL camera and an idea that there must be something else other than just snapping photos and spitting out prints. Going all in on the balance thing, Johansson learned digital photography and photo manipulation simultaneously. It's like learning two languages at once, resulting in a more fluid use and understanding of each. For Johansson, it resulted in a sound understanding of the language of creation. Benefitting from his mastery, we are presented with images easily received and related to that also make us go, “Wait, what is even going on here?” This is the work of a man who carves out a work space, and a work day, despite working from home and lets things come in their own time. “Letting things take time is super important. We all want, like, shortcuts and to do things fast. You have an idea and you just want to realize it now. I’ve noticed that when I do that I stress, and it shows.”
Today, Johansson is light years away from being a kid with a camera whose ideas “felt too abstract” to generate revenue, much less make an actual living from. It’s likely this distinct formula of measured abstraction that makes Johansson’s work uniquely compelling. He gives us something new. He fills gaps. Ones we didn’t know were there – between things we think we understand but actually don’t. As Johansson puts it, “It feels like a photograph, but it also feels like something we can recognize and step into.” Indeed, he produces imagery we can revel in and revolve into. Something unbelievable, but believable, but theoretical nonetheless; a fractal universe of symbols and signs and outright trickery that we just can’t stop looking at and we’ll definitely pay for.