In the darkroom, Erik Gustafsson distorts reality

In his new book, the Swedish photographer elevates the everyday through a mix of analogue techniques

Image layered with red and orange circles by Erik Gustafsson
All images: © Erik Gustafsson, 2024. Courtesy Loose Joints

“Apparently, it came about as I was talking to my dear friend Louis Nitze, who had asked me if he could write a text for the book,” says Erik Gustafsson of the title for his new publication, A House of Clay. “When explaining my work to him I used the analogy of a house of clay that changes as people interact and engage with it. I have no memory of telling him this, but he recorded our conversation and put those words in his wonderful text.”

Published by Loose Joints, A House of Clay is Gustafsson’s third book to date, and more than any other gets to the heart of his unique practice. The Swedish photographer is known for his experimental approach to the medium, often choosing to manipulate his images in unexpected ways, forming new perspectives and meanings as he goes. Gustafsson says that he sees his images as both “finished and unfinished”, and it is within this liminal state that his creativity blooms.

Book spread featuring images by Erik Gustafsson
Book spread featuring images by Erik Gustafsson

“Experimentation is a central part of my practice,” he explains. “I like to turn the analogue darkroom into a camera, continuing to add layers of light on the image during the printmaking process. Every act of added creation demands the destruction of the original photograph and becomes a way to embrace the dual identity of our human nature, both as creator and destroyer. The act of manipulating and altering is like purposely getting lost, and I love being in that state of mind.”

The artists that influence him mirror his mixed media practice. On the one hand, there are photographers such as Nan Goldin, Hiromix, Wolfgang Tillmans, Anders Edström, Gerhard Richter and Gunther Förg. “But also Mark Rothko and Hedda Sterne who were both part of the Color Field Painting movement, a style of abstract painting that emerged in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s.”

Image of a step ladder next to a tiled wall hanging by Erik Gustafsson
Yellow hued image of a lamb overlaid with the letter 'S' in reverse by Erik Gustafsson

In the book, Gustafsson’s multifaceted process is clear, with traditional photographs presented alongside imagery that has obviously been manipulated. Dark lines criss-cross the frame, radiating bold hues as if carrying an electrical charge; mise en abyme is used to embed photographs within photographs; and distorted textures suggest imagery that has been rescanned several times.

The result is a series that is at once a warm portrait of everyday life, and an interrogation of the photographic medium. The latter, however, also serves to enhance the former, elevating the mundane to become something closer to magical realism. Gustafsson conveys the world around him through a blend of obscure darkroom techniques, and in doing so, he creates a layered reality – constantly reimagined and reworked to create new pathways.

Book spread featuring images by Erik Gustafsson
Book spread featuring images by Erik Gustafsson

“Sometimes a print can lie in a box for years until I rediscover it, rephotograph it and continue to work with it. It’s all very intuitive. I might keep it clean, add a tone, leave some gestures or go for total destruction. To continually work with the same image for a long time can be challenging, but eventually you switch off your brain,” and it’s here where the most compelling results often emerge.

“To me, each and every work has the potential of becoming multiple versions of itself,” he says.

A House of Clay by Erik Gustafsson is published by Loose Joints;