Impossible images are Erik Johansson’s specialty – he’s a magician according to some of his admirers. To the delight of many, he likes to fabricate photographs that could only be captured by his imagination. While Johansson calls himself a photographer and retouch artist, on his website you can find fascinating examples of why he’s also a wizard of whimsy. Here’s one of my favorites:


Erik Johansson “Go Your Own Road”

Here’s another:


Erik Johansson “Fishy Island”

These are photomontages, or a pasting together of many different photographs to create one realistic but impossible image. Consider the next one – I think Surrealist painter Rene Magritte would have found it to his liking. But first, check out Magritte’s painting entitled “The Human Condition:”


Rene Magritte “The Human Condition”

And here’s Erik Johnsson’s photomontage “Self-actualization:”


Erik Johansson “Self-actualization”

For me, what makes these pieces work is Johansson’s sense of humor. Yes, they’re great eye teasers and extremely well-crafted. But they also have a sense of the absurd that makes you smile. I feel these images are like an open door, inviting you into a quirky but fascinating world where anything could be possible.


Erik Johansson “Kaffeslump”

What these pieces have in common is that they all seem plausible – there are no detectible signs of manipulation, although our brain understands that what we’re seeing is a carefully crafted illusion. In fact, all of these impossible images have been created using Photoshop (a software program that allows you to re-imagine photographs).


Erik Johansson “Arms break, vases don’t”

Erik spends hours conceiving each image, making sketches and taking photographs. As he works, he must ensure that the angle, lighting and point of view of his photographs are consistent – so all the pieces will work together seamlessly. Then he spends many hours in a Photoshop mashup, shaping all the little details to realize his creative vision.


Erik Johansson “Vertical turn”

All of his painstaking work gives these impossible images that “huh?” factor –  his best ones make you smile.


Erik Johansson “Stryktalig”

Still, for some they raise the question of style v. substance. Obviously Erik is a highly skilled craftsman/technician who delights in how he can bend reality. You can see that in his work and in this short video of a recent street prank he ran on some people waiting for a bus.

He’s been celebrated for his technical ability. But beyond the smile-inducing first glance, to quote Gertrude Stein, is there any there there? Here’s what I mean: on the one hand, you need technique and skill to accomplish anything of value – I don’t want to minimize the effort it takes become accomplished at something. Still, technique without compelling content doesn’t take you very far.

You can admire, applaud and be mesmerized by outstanding technical ability. But at the end of the day, what gives a piece power requires something more than just having the skill to create it – call it content, meaning, depth, whatever. Without that, you loose the ability to surprise and delight, to engage the intellect and touch the emotions.


Erik Johansson “Cut and fold”

Erik spoke about how he approaches his work at an Adobe Max presentation (Adobe makes the Photoshop software). In the 16 minute video below he gives you a little insight into his creative vision and shows how he constructs his impossible images.

So what do you think? Is there enough there to give Erik’s work some heft – make it more than just an “oh-wow” experience? Is it eye candy or something else? How do you see it? Leave a comment and let me know.