From Surrealism to Photomanipulation to Erik Johansson

Photomanipulation is a modern digital art style which has been around in some form or another for a long time but has only gained prominence over the past decade with the use of digital means, in particular Photoshop.

The topic of conversation here is the work of Erik Johansson, who uses photomanipulation to create surreal scenes, what he calls “Impossible photography”. It’s his opinion that photography is too dependent on being in the right place at the right time, and it’s better to “create a place than find a place. Then you don’t have to compromise with the ideas in your head”[1]

Photomanipulation is all about creating an illusion and in this sense, creating an illusion that maintains realism, but obviously cannot exist in real life. This is where the surrealism comes in.

Surrealism is an Avant Garde art style that attempts to release the processes of the unconscious mind, as dream association attempts to do in psychoanalysis. To paraphrase, it is pure psychic automatism in which a person expresses the real functioning of thought [2]. Salvador Dali explained surrealism and its artists in that “there is only one difference between a madman and I. I am not mad” [3]

It began as an extension of Dadaism with the publication of Andre Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto” in 1924 and later his magazine, “La Révolution Surréaliste”, the design of which I am currently emulating.

It wasn’t something only related to art; this was a movement that attempted to incorporate all styles of culture. Breton wanted this to become some sort of revolutionary movement that would change society as we know it, to change the way we express ourselves.

Back when surrealism was first created; it adhered to styles such as automatic drawing. This was a technique used to make sure what was on the canvas was completely a part of the unconscious mind and was devoid of any actual planning. This however, slowly changed over time.

The major influences on this at the start were the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali and the influx of British painters into the style. Surrealism started to change immediately, from random scribbling to pieces that could now be argued were completely planned from the beginning. But this was more accessible to the public and because of that the movement gained popularity.
When the movement ended is up to debate, but it still appears in modern design today. However, it isn’t expressed in the same way. The tools the people of the past were using allowed them to create something without any kind of conscious thought, but with the advent of photography and digital editing software, a certain degree of foresight is required.

This is why surrealism of today is an attempt to create something of complete fantasy in something that still maintains realism. It’s bizarre. This is what Erik Johansson does.


“Reverse Opposites” is a good example of how Erik Johansson has been effected by the influential people of the past. Notice the implementation of stairs, which is a prevalent theme in a lot of his work and also in surrealism in general. The use of stairs was made famous by MC Escher in the 1900s, a person who became obsessed with order to create something that is simultaneously impossible to exist in real life but containing enough mathematical certainty that it still maintains realism.

This piece is interesting in composition as it, for the most part, avoids the use of curves. It’s mathematics to its most logical high point, and it’s a contrast to MC Escher as he frequently used arcs to complement the rigidity of the rest of the piece. The piece contains more than once source of gravity, a similarity to “Relativity”. Like “Relativity”, it adds in the human element to the piece. It creates something relatable and that is what makes this piece surrealist, beyond anything else. On its own, the building could exist, it’s strange, but it’s not purely fantasy. But add the human and that’s where the dual points of gravity come in, and the piece suddenly becomes surreal.

There is also the use of symmetry down the diagonal point. This works well for four different reasons. First, it makes the image seem extremely balanced, which then reinforces the piece’s connection to reality while simultaneously connecting it further to math. The final reason being that symmetry is another thing which MC Escher is famous for, clearly marking this piece as homage to his works.

In a way, Johansson’s work is an extension of MC Escher’s. It’s clear that he is a very big influence. The mathematical side is taken to the extreme and the work is taken into a new era by the use of digital means rather than traditional.

But an extension is not replica, and there are also many aspects where this piece differs from MC Escher. Colour is where it finally expands. His most famous works, the ones similar to this, are all monochromatic, but Johansson instead goes for a bold red to highlight the human and a turquoise green as a complement. This is a polar opposite to the work it’s trying to emulate.

To speak of the elephant in the room, there is the obvious difference of the tools used in this piece. The use of real photographs creates a level of realism that wasn’t really possible for anyone back when the surrealism movement was actually relevant. It uses Photoshop as a medium instead of paint or pencil or ink.

The huge arrangement of tools which we have now allows us to create things beyond the imagination of a style that was once about imagination. It means that the things being created at the moment by contemporary artists can be broader in scope and more conceptual than the things that were created when the movement was popular.
It’s also a lot more accessible to the public. Surrealism moved away from wry scribbles very quickly, until it was quite clear that Breton’s original concept had been butchered, but that’s ok. Surrealism at the beginning only began to truly get popular with people who made more accessible work. Elitism serves no purpose than to ostracize work from the people viewing it. The dynamic nature of art which is the reason why it never gets stale. Surrealism faded away in its original form and was replaced by something different. Let’s for now call this sub-genre of photomanipulation neo-surrealism, which would separate it from the old. Neo being a Greek prefix for young which is generally attached in this way to new versions of old things. While it does contain a lot of the same themes and it’s obviously influenced by the original artists, it is fundamentally different.

Ever since the advent of the internet, sites like behance, deviantart or abduzeedo have sprung up online full of young people creating things that emulate the things of the past to some extent but because of the tools used something new is created instead. Painting became digipainting, landscapes became Terragen work, and sculpture became 3D modelling and so on. Communities form and entirely different works from the industry standard are created online. Still commercially viable but quite different.

But these things go unnoticed by a lot of the people in the industry, mainly because while there is a lot of unique styles and thoughts, there are also a lot of things at the opposite end of the spectrum. The bar for acceptance is zero, so it’s really quite reasonable that people ignore the likes of Jonas De Ro or Erik Johansson when the rest of these communities are cluttered with awkward self-shots and bad fan art.
This isn’t the type of art typically found in an art gallery, nor are they intended to. The best people in these communities, the small amount of people who actually are professionals, generally work on the commercial side of graphics rather than the art side. But this is only a small minority, but their existence effects the scene, making the inclination of the scene vie towards commercialism. For the rest of these people, their work relies solely on the internet. Most aren’t exactly concept driven, but more a show of technical prowess and skill.

So, we’ve discussed one side of the influence to Erik Johansson’s work, the surrealism, but what about Photomanipulation itself?

It’s actually been around for a surprising amount of time, except again not using the same tools. Tampering with photos physically has been around as long as the actual photo. These traditional manipulations in the darkroom used ink, paint or airbrushes (which is where the term airbrushing comes from today) in creative ways to change the final product. The earliest known manipulation being 1860, which altered a photo of Abraham Lincoln to include the body of another man [4].

Most famously, standard photomanipulation was used to edit Nikolai Yezhov out of a photo with Joseph Stalin for propaganda purposes.


The lengths that people had to go to change photos was a lot more difficult than we have to do today. Photomanipulation is used a lot in pretty much every type of photography but a lot of it isn’t relevant to these “neo-surrealists”. A lot of the techniques are the same but the scope is entirely different.


This piece is a perfect example of modern day photomanipulation; it is the combination of several different photos which when combined creates a coherent image. This is relatively simple in comparison to some of his other works, only two images in comparison to dozens in some of his other works. In order for a piece to achieve realism, three things must be done, which Johansson outlines in his TEDtalks video. These three things are:

1) Perspective
2) Lighting
3) Seamless merging of photos

Without these things, the image just doesn’t work; realism is lost because parts of the image will stand out and not in a good way. The perspective in both images used are the same, the lighting is similar and the merging of the photos is completely seamless, the colour of the sheet was changed and some pentool work to merge the two images and the basic composition is down; making the work appear realistic.
Conceptually, this image seems to suggest taking the road of life for yourself, it’s a metaphorical saying but the piece takes it quite literally. This is similar to the original concept of surrealism, bringing metaphor and the unconscious to the canvas.

The colour palette of most of the work is green, which is to be expected considering it’s mostly a nature shot, but the image is saved from being monochromatic by the shirt, changing the colour scheme to an analogous. This is good in this situation because a colour further from green on the colour wheel would have created too much contrast and too much focus would be drawn on the person instead of what he is pulling. However, enough focus is brought to the man as a primary focal point that the viewer’s eyes can be led from him to the rest of the road. The eyes are drawn to that position now only because of the colour but also because it lays on one of the intersect points of the rule of thirds, where the eye naturally wanders to first.

Ideas aren’t static. They come from our perception of the world and are influenced by the ideas of the past. We stand on the shoulders of giants which is the only thing possible when the ceiling keeps getting higher and the lights keep going out. We’re in the middle of a technological renaissance and ideas are flying around quicker than ever. In the case of Erik Johansson, he has gone from surrealism to photomanipulation and combined the two. I call this neo-surrealism, he calls it impossible photography.

• [1] From Andre Breton’s “Surrealist manifesto”
• [2] From “Diary of a Genius” by Salvador Dali
• [3] Erik Johansson, TEDtalk – [link]
• [4] The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography


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