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Photorealism in Art - A Debated Style

November 28, 2015
Bob Lansroth loves to explore the boundless diversity of artists and the various ways in which they strive to escape the quotidian life. It is through the creative force within us that we must attempt to connect with one another and share our ideas with the world. Writing for Widewalls, Bob Lansroth makes an effort to bring the world of art to as many people as possible. “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

In a traditional sense, drawing has been regarded as an imitative art, meaning that the artist usually creates images based on real things. Of course, this notion can be transposed from simple copying of entire scenes to creating a completely original assembly from bits and pieces of real/unreal things. But, to really boggle someone’s mind about whether the image in front of them is a mere photograph of an existing scene, or actually an uncanny drawing, the art style would be photorealism. Now, for a second, let us examine the actual term “uncanny”. It was coined back in 1906 to describe something in a bizarre state, perceived in terms of its uncertainty, but it took Sigmund Freud to attach the meaning to the word we use today. Uncanny is a concept of a particular moment when something is both familiar and alien at the same time, creating a feeling of discomfort. This is why photorealism is most often described with this particular word, because the best of the works from this style definitely blur out the lines between familiar and alien by creating something so close to reality that it actually perplexes the viewer. Before the stunning CGI artwork we have nowadays, there were artists who created paintings by hand, only by looking at a photograph. So let’s go back to the ’60s and ’70s, when Photorealism started emerging, and see why it received much positive and negative feedback from the art world, how it developed through the years and at which point “real” becomes “too real”…

realism contact photographs painters subject policy privacy using museums Photorealism artwork painting work photorealist realism use artist american
When does “real” become too “real” ?

Photorealism – Art or Not?

Whether it’s art or not, and where the line can be drawn between something considered as art or not is quite difficult to discern. For example, if someone with poor drawing abilities would draw a cat, it wouldn’t be considered as art, because it obviously doesn’t look much like a cat due to the fact it is badly drawn. Now, would it be art if that person could draw much better? Probably yes, now, since realism is often praised in the world of art, is there a point at which drawing becomes too real to be considered art? Of course, if you would take a photocopy or a scan, it wouldn’t be called art, it would just be a mechanical reproduction. But, once you include the human factor, a photorealistic image, made by hand and not by technological means of duplication, it magically becomes art. So, is it “just” the great technical skill that is enough for something to be considered as a piece of art, or does it require something more than incredible accuracy and immense drawing technique? Many would argue that the technical skill can be exceeded by a decent color photocopier or a computer, thus avoid to use the word art in such context, but this discussion brings us to an analogy of photography. If photography is merely capturing an image of what is already there, where is the art in that? It is right there in the photographer’s perspective, the exact choice made by the person wielding the camera in what to capture and from which angle, moment and perspective. If a person creating a photorealistic recreation of a photograph doesn’t have that “artistic” input of a photographer, then what is artistic about the process? Some would say even those renditions are not strict interpretations of photographs, instead, they incorporate additional, often subtle, pictorial elements to create the illusion of a reality which does not actually exist, or cannot be perceived by the human eye. In the end, as in many things in art, and life in general, the final conclusion remains behind the individual perspective. The answer lies in the eye of the beholder, whether you find the artistic strain within it, or just admire it for the sheer talent, Photorealism is remarkable and amazing in its own right.

realism photographs painters subject policy privacz using museums Richard Estes - Supreme Hardware, 1974 american painting photorealist
(Richard Estes – Supreme Hardware, 1974) Photo-realists aimed to break down the hierarchies of appropriate subjects matter by incorporating everyday scenes of commercial life

Origins and Development

Photorealism started developing as an art movement back in the 1960s in the USA. Ralph Goings, Audrey Flack, Richard Estes, Chuck Close and Robert Bechtle are aimed to reproduce the image captured by the camera. They attempted to create highly illusionistic images that would come as close as possible to the machine-made image. The movement actually grew out of its predecessors – Pop and Minimalism. Much like the Pop artists, Photo-realists aimed to break down the hierarchies of appropriate subjects matter by incorporating everyday scenes of commercial life. The artists often relied on advertising and commercial imagery to provide inspiration and borrow themes from. But, the entire movement received much criticism very early, positive as well as negative. As some practitioners of Pop art, artists of Photorealism brought the focus back on the importance of the creative process and deliberate planning, instead of the improvisation and automatism. Basically, after decades of celebrating the spontaneous, accidental and the improvisational aspects in art, the traditional techniques of academic art were given great importance once again. Photorealism requires immense planning, the gathering of visual information, systematic examination of the image and of course, high technical skills. The super-high level of technical prowess is elevated to a point of virtuosity through the work of Photo-realists. The movement is often referred to as Hyperrealism or Superrealism due to the fact that the images replicated onto canvas are done with such precision and accuracy that they accentuate the reality beyond our normal perception. The imagery in Photorealist artwork is traditionally banal and ordinary, the common themes include everyday objects, still life, trucks, signs, street scenes and other images that we encounter in our normal day-to-day life, exactly something that we would mistake for a photograph. Even though the artists rely heavily on a photograph in order to create their work, the paintings are often quite large, usually depicting objects many times bigger than their actual size in real life.

realism painters subject museums Gottfried Helnwein creating his artwork american painting photorealist
(Gottfried Helnwein creating his artwork) Artworks of Photorealism were, and still are, visually stunning and mind-boggling

Craftsmanship vs. Artistry

Aside from practically erasing the line between a photograph and a painting, Photorealism also blurs the line between arts and crafts in a way. As a quest for verisimilitude, the movement was often misinterpreted by many. One of the top artists of the form, Richard Estes, once said that the thing with the Abstract Expressionists was that they were so involved with pure feeling and emotions that they wouldn’t bother with craftsmanship. On the other hand, Photorealism artists seemed to focus solely on the technical skill and the pure crafting technique in art-making. Despite the popularity and substantial attention it garnered throughout the years, Photorealism as an art movement fell out of favor and went under the radar of contemporary art history. Still, it left some influence on the future of art and the art movements to come. At the time, it represented a unique stance against the pervasive art forms of the period, it pursued an impersonal uniformity of technique throughout the complete work. Artworks of Photorealism were, and still are, visually stunning and mind-boggling even. Today, looking back through the photo-like paintings, the artwork provides a unique socio-cultural view of capitalist America in the 1970s. Later on, the art for art’s sake approach changed, the medium became a vessel for depicting a social change. Hyperrealism and Superrealism were spawned as permutations of the style and they indeed do persist in the contemporary art world. Many artists strive to acquire the level of photographic quality in their work at least at some point in their career, but none did it as realistically and in more detail than the Photo-realists.

Editors’ Tip: Photorealism: Beginnings to Today Hardcover by Miranda Lash, Louis K. Meisel and Russell Lord

Explore further about photorealistic art. This book by Miranda Lash, Russell Lord and Louis K. Meisel features iconic and never-before-published works, being one of the first and finest collections of Photorealism in the United States. This book was an addition to the exhibition Photorealism: Beginnings to Today at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and it presents seventy works from the late 1960s to recent years. Miranda Lash is Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Louis K. Meisel is the owner of the Louis K. Meisel Gallery and the man who coined the word ‘Photorealism’. Russell Lord is Curator of Photography, Prints, and Drawings, New Orleans Museum of Art.

Featured images: Ralph Goings – River Valley Still Life, 1976; Richard Estes – artwork; Robert Neffson – Grand Central; Matthew Cornell creating his artwork; Gregory Thielker – artwork; Peter Maier – Gridlock, 2007. All images used for illustrative purposes only.