Photographer Creates Surreal Photos Without the Help of Photoshop

Surreal Photography by John Dykstra

“Penalty Box”

Photographer John Dykstra has had a long artistic journey. After falling in love with photography as a teenager, he went through a period where he sold his equipment, only to be lured back to his passion in 2014. After mastering studio lighting in a college program, he fell in love with portraiture and photography's ability to represent any fantasy the artistic mind could imagine. This led him to begin executing a series of incredibly surreal photography that plays with realism and perspective.

Taking influence from paintings, sculptures, music, childhood memories, and self-reflection, Dykstra uses items like chalk and household props to craft his stunning images. In particular, his work plays with perspective, blending the two-dimensional and three-dimensional into one photo for mind-bending results.

“I am especially inspired by the believability of the photographic medium,” the photographer tells My Modern Met. “By believability, I mean the accuracy of its likeness to reality. It’s easy to see a photograph of something and make a snap judgment: either this photograph is honest and shows what something looks like, or it's been manipulated in some way. With my surreal imagery, it’s a little bit of both.”

Dykstra is careful to note that he aims to document exactly what's in his viewfinder, striving for perfection in the studio rather than on the computer. “I don’t use any Photoshop compositing or heavy manipulation. I never add anything in post-production and I rarely remove anything, even stray hairs.” In an age where there's much commentary on what's Photoshopped or not, his work is a refreshing reminder of what creatives can accomplish without the assistance of electronic manipulation.

Surreal Photography by John Dykstra

Dykstra's themes come from much internal reflection, where a mood or life experience provides the guiding light for a particular image. From there, Dykstra goes about creating his vision in the studio. First, he gathers props by scouring Craig's List or visiting estate sales. Then, if the image requires, he'll work out his drawings in the studio, making careful markings to see just how his design will line up in the photograph. By the time the model arrives, he typically needs only one hour to photograph his vision, after which the photo goes into Lightroom for some light color correction.

What does the burgeoning fine art photographer hope people take away from his work? “The importance of perspective. I work with perspective illusions as a symbol for the personal perspective on life. We all have a perspective on the world, and depending on how healthy that perspective is, we can suffer unnecessarily or we can prosper against great odds. Penalty Box was my first perspective illusion, and for me it represented the idea that many of our own boundaries are not only self-inhibited but are no more than an illusion, suggesting that a change in perspective could be the key component in setting the self free.”

Rather than rely on Photoshop, John Dykstra uses chalk, paint, and simple tricks of perspective in his surreal photography.

Surreal Photography by John Dykstra Surreal Photography by John Dykstra No Photoshop Surreal Photography by John Dykstra Surreal Photography by John Dykstra Surreal Photography by John Dykstra Surreal Photography by John Dykstra Surreal Photography by John Dykstra No Photoshop Surreal Photography by John Dykstra No Photoshop Surreal Photography by John Dykstra Surreal Photography by John Dykstra

These side-by-side images demonstrate how Dykstra works in the studio to create his surreal photographs.

Behind the Scenes Photography Setup

John Dykstra: Website | Facebook | Instagram

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by John Dykstra.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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