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On Post-Production, Pt. 3: Inside the fantastical world of photographer Simen Johan

In the third instalment of a new series looking at post-processing in the photographer’s workflow, Simen Johan talks about how he creates his beguiling images, and why digital capture and the best modern imaging software gives him the freedom he craves.

Scandinavian photographer Simen Johan, known for his flawless digital composite images, has been likened to a film director in the past. So it is fitting that the artist, represented by Yossi Milo Gallery in New York, dreamt of making movies when he was growing up. Inspired and encouraged by his step-grandfather, the American movie producer and director Rod E. Geiger, Johan went to film school in Sweden before relocating to New York in 1992 to study film at the School of Visual Arts. He switched to photography during his time there, and although Johan has made his name as a fine art photographer, it is clear filmmaking still fascinates him.

“I was attracted to filmmaking’s ability to create an immersive experience, through image, sound and motion,” says Johan. “Movies by directors such as Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg transported me to suspenseful, strange and psychologically-charged places that didn’t merely entertain, but revealed complex truths about life, people and the world.

“Photography to me was the next best thing to filmmaking,” he continues. “I had taken photography courses in Sweden and discovered how the still image can also have considerable narrative and symbolic power, and unlike film, in photography I could do everything myself.”

“The sea lion image developed over several years. It started with one sea lion in 2005 and then became a group. While kayaking in California a few years ago I photographed sea lions on a rock in the sunset. When I returned to New York I superimposed them onto a black background and they looked like ghosts in a void, which I liked. I went back the following winter and was able to capture the sea lions in the same light. Once I started to piece them together the shapes made an interesting composition, eliminating the ghostly forms of my original sketch. I now had a sense they were on a sinking raft. Interestingly, the name for a group of sea lions is a raft of sea lions. The tension between the sunrise and blackness created a spiritual dynamic, so it all came together in the end.” Untitled #188 © Simen Johan

“The sea lion image developed over several years. It started with one sea lion in 2005 and then became a group. While kayaking in California a few years ago I photographed sea lions on a rock in the sunset. When I returned to New York I superimposed them onto a black background and they looked like ghosts in a void, which I liked. I went back the following winter and was able to capture the sea lions in the same light. Once I started to piece them together the shapes made an interesting composition, eliminating the ghostly forms of my original sketch. I now had a sense they were on a sinking raft. Interestingly, the name for a group of sea lions is a raft of sea lions. The tension between the sunrise and blackness created a spiritual dynamic, so it all came together in the end.” Untitled #188 © Simen Johan

Johan, who currently lives and works in New York, has staged narratives and looked for ways to manipulate his images ever since. In the early 1990s he experimented in the darkroom, manually cutting his photographs, pasting them together with tape, and re-photographing the composite images. Then, he says, he discovered Photoshop, and taught himself how to use the software to create the images he had in his mind.

“Back then there were no ‘layers’ and you only had one ‘undo’ command before the changes you made were permanent. I figured out a way to print my images inverted onto transparent film and use these ‘negatives’ to make 20×24-inch black and white prints in the darkroom. I would then sepia tone the prints to make them look old. People would be very confused as to what they were looking at because they didn’t think it was possible to alter photographs like that.”

Photoshop has come a long way since the early 1990s when Johan was starting out, and today the software is an integral part of his workflow. In one series, which he has been working on since the mid-2000s, Johan digitally creates multi-layered scenes of animals against elaborate backdrops.

Untitled #172 © Simen Johan

Giraffes photographed by Johan at three separate zoos in San Diego, Bronx and Berlin. The background combines coastal photography from Iceland, Turkey and Bali – Untitled #172 © Simen Johan

“I travel extensively and photograph landscapes and animals wherever I can find them – in zoos, safari parks, farms and the wild,” says Johan. “Over the years I’ve built an extensive image library of animals and nature that provides the building blocks for my work.”

He looks for poetic and unexpected relationships between images, and endeavours to create composites that are inherently ambiguous and even contradictory – “that seem natural and artificial, for instance, or familiar and otherworldly. I like to create ambiguous images because the world is inherently ambiguous. Our very own existence in this world is simultaneously apparent and unknowable.”

“I photographed the zebras at San Diego Zoo and the foliage in Florida and Bali. I like the artificial logic here, with the zebras camouflaged by foliage as if that’s why zebras are striped. In reality they inhabit grasslands of eastern and southern Africa, so the image shifts the logic. Reality is a bit like that – things make sense and we take things for granted, but as soon as we start questioning our reality it crumbles and we realise everything is not how it appears. Camouflage is a recurring theme in my work. It appeals to me because it’s nature’s way of confusing the things we see. Our desires, fears, memory, senses, culture, media, and more cloud our perceptions and we tend to look to nature for authenticity, but even here we encounter illusion – from camouflage to colours and smells that confuse our senses. Nature caters well to our survival, but its objective is not for us to see or think clearly.” Untitled #182 © Simen Johan

“I photographed the zebras at San Diego Zoo and the foliage in Florida and Bali. I like the artificial logic here, with the zebras camouflaged by foliage as if that’s why zebras are striped. In reality they inhabit grasslands of eastern and southern Africa, so the image shifts the logic. Reality is a bit like that – things make sense and we take things for granted, but as soon as we start questioning our reality it crumbles and we realise everything is not how it appears. Camouflage is a recurring theme in my work. It appeals to me because it’s nature’s way of confusing the things we see. Our desires, fears, memory, senses, culture, media, and more cloud our perceptions and we tend to look to nature for authenticity, but even here we encounter illusion – from camouflage to colours and smells that confuse our senses. Nature caters well to our survival, but its objective is not for us to see or think clearly.” Untitled #182 © Simen Johan

In order to create his carefully crafted digital photomontages, Johan produces images of the highest resolution and sharpness, and needs imaging software that delivers flawlessly in the finished piece. Working intuitively and often taking advantage of “surprise moments”, he allows his compositions to evolve over time. Even so, he adds, “in the studio there’s room for me to structure and compose my images with purpose and conceptual intent – like a painter, sculptor or film editor does.”

Currently Johan has 40 images in progress, of which he hopes at least ten will come together for his next exhibition, although no date has been set as yet. Recently returned from Death Valley, he has images of sand dunes, mineral deposits, palm trees and even a lava desert to add to his extensive collection. For now, though, Johan is content to play with ideas and possibilities before fine-tuning his next series of images.  

Johan’s depiction of Peruvian yellow-hooded blackbirds inhabiting a dystopian setting created with a photograph he took of a tar pit in an Icelandic volcano merged with landfill detritus. Untitled #171 © Simen Johan

Johan’s depiction of Peruvian yellow-hooded blackbirds inhabiting a dystopian setting created with a photograph he took of a tar pit in an Icelandic volcano merged with landfill detritus. Untitled #171 © Simen Johan

“Traditionally, photography is an inflexible medium, but working digitally frees me from that to a degree. I still find myself spending an exuberant amount of hours problem-solving though, trying to make things look a certain way.”

“Making art is not such a calculated process for me that there is any one thing in particular I want to convey,” he adds. “It’s more a process of experimentation, and trying to look for new, engaging ways to depict the world and the experience of being in it.”

 As Johan mentions, before Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, the art of image manipulation still existed in the darkroom, though, relatively speaking, photography was an “inflexible medium”. For Johan, and many other professional photographers, post-production software is an integral part of the modern workflow, so mastery is virtually a prerequisite of success. Visit  Adobe Learn, a resource center by Adobe providing a rich source of information that will help you create and innovate, from getting started as a beginner to refining and improving your craft and workflow as an expert.

Works from the series ‘Until the Kingdom Comes” available through Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

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www.simenjohan.com

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