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Photorealism Collage

Photorealism - History and Concepts

Started: Early 1960s
Photorealism Timeline

Beginnings of Photorealism

During the late 1950s and early 1960s in New York City, the dominant art movements advanced by artists, critics, and gallerists alike were Abstract Expressionism, followed by Pop art, then Minimalism. In the mid-1960s, a far smaller movement of individual artists producing realistic paintings related to photography began to practice their craft, also in New York. It would take over a decade for this movement to achieve any official and cohesive identity.

In 1956, a recent graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago named Richard Estes, aged 24 at the time, relocated to New York City. In his student years Estes specialized in representational subject matter such as landscapes, and would regularly use his camera to shoot and develop photographs as visual aids. He continued this practice during the early 1960s when reinterpreting snapshots of his adopted city in paint. But unlike typical landscape or en plein air artists, Estes' land- and cityscapes were executed with a heightened level of detail and lifelike accuracy. The results were accolades from his peers, and an artistic following which in turn led to more Photorealists, as the artists were soon called.

Estes, who by the mid 1960s was living in Spain, worked to give his realistic two-dimensional paintings a three-dimensional feel that they could be mistaken for actual photographs. In a paradox, many of the contextual details one might find in a photo - pedestrians, litter, a puddle of water or patch of snow - are noticeably absent from Estes' paintings.

The First Photorealists

The first Photorealists were Chuck Close, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Robert Bechtle, Audrey Flack, Denis Peterson, and Malcolm Morley. Each began practicing some form of Photorealism around the same time, often utilizing different modes of application and techniques, and citing different inspirations for their work. However, for the most part they all worked independent from one another. For example, Chuck Close came of age at the height of Pop art and Andy Warhol's Factory, and was based out of SoHo in lower Manhattan. And Audrey Flack, a graduate of Yale, began creating photo-based works in the early 1960s.

The Five Principles

In 1969, Brooklyn-born art dealer Louis K. Meisel, operated his own gallery in SoHo, coined the term "Photorealism," which first appeared in print the following year for the Whitney Museum's exhibition "Twenty-two Realists." In 1972, Meisel published a formal five-point definition of the movement at the request of a prominent collector who commissioned the largest collection of Photorealist works to date. Meisel's definition was as elementary in its terminology as it was careful to curtail those who might wish to stretch the technological and visual boundaries of the movement. Meisel's criteria, it should be noted, favored those artists that he represented.

1.The photorealist uses the camera and photograph to gather information
2.The photorealist uses a mechanical or semi-mechanical means to transfer the information to the canvas
3.The photorealist must have the technical ability to make the finished work appear photographic
4.The artist must have exhibited work as a photorealist by 1972 to be considered one of the central photorealists
5.The artist must have devoted at least five years to the development and exhibition of photorealist work

As with many modern art movements, Photorealism was not comprised of any cohesive structure or unified purpose within the ranks of the artists, so adhering to any or all of Meisel's qualifications were, at best, elective. The British painter Malcolm Morley, for example, has often used toy models instead of photographs to create his figurative paintings; however, Meisel does not consider Morley to be a Photorealist (nor represents his art in his gallery). Meisel remains to this day the world's preeminent collector and scholar of Photorealism, and the Louis K. Meisel Gallery still operates in SoHo, New York City.

Documenta 5

This radical painting style received a broader audience in 1972, when the Swiss curator and art historian Harald Szeeman invited several Photorealists to exhibit at the Documenta 5. The German-based international art exhibition, Documenta 5 which is held every five years has become infamous through a variety of controversial exhibits. This particular show was lambasted by most critics, among them Barbara Rose, who called the show "overtly deranged." What proved unpopular was Szeeman's reconceptualization of the exhibition. Whereas all prior Documentas selected work individually for inclusion based upon artistic merit, under Szeeman's control the exhibition became thematic and of a unified vision. This allowed for more social and historical context to be considered which some critics felt detracted from the show's aesthetic prominence.

Szeeman subtitled his Documenta the discreetly ominous "100 Days of Inquiry into Reality - Today's Imagery." Of the 220 artists who exhibited, including Claes Oldenburg and Joseph Beuys, Szeeman also showed works by the relatively unknown Chuck Close, Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Malcolm Morley, Don Eddy, Robert Bechtle, John Salt, and Charles Bell. At the time this represented the greatest number of Photorealist works by multiple artists displayed in a single art exhibition, and one worthy of international recognition. Further, these artists' association with such a controversial event seemed to establish Photorealism as an outlier movement within the modernist canon.

Photorealism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Photorealism and Pop Art

Although Photorealism emerged roughly around the same time as Pop art in the 1960s, the style itself was not a response to its immediate predecessor, despite some historical accounts that tether the two. Photorealism and Pop art do share, however, a common visual ground: they both are indebted to the wide distribution of photographic media in popular culture. When examining the paintings from the movement's zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there is an evident lack of clutter and extraneous detail. The prevalent subject matter, or rather just simply, scenery, is of the plain views of the American cityscape, such as parking lots, street scenes, and low-rise buildings. The visual coolness and emotional detachment of these scenes give Photorealism a conceptual attachment to modern movements like Pop and Minimalism, but there's never any mistaking one for the other.

Photorealism and Minimalism

Despite the ties between Pop art and Photorealism, as a practice and an artistic approach, the movement is far closer to Minimalism. Their mutual lack of affectation, visual clutter, and the appearance of improvisation made the two movements unlikely cousins, albeit with two very divergent aesthetics. The visual language of Photorealism was comprised of portraiture, landscape, still-life, and scenery painting, while Minimalism made exclusive use of geometric abstraction and the careful placement of lines and forms within a defined space. Yet, Minimalists' use of industrial fabrication in their constructions, and the resulting absence of individualism in the work (previously a hallmark of Abstract Expressionist and even Pop art) was likewise a shared characteristic with Photorealism, where the artist's individual marks are not present.

Photorealism and Trompe l'oeil

A controversial attribution regarding Photorealism is its association to, and even equation with trompe l'oeil. The strict and traditional definition of trompe l'oeil is a painting that is meant to deceive the viewer's eye into believing they are actually viewing a real object and not a painting. By this definition, Photorealism is not trompe l'oeil because the viewer is meant to be conscious that they're in fact looking at a painting, and often, a painted image of a photograph. However, a somewhat more liberal explanation of Photorealism defines it as being made in the manner of trompe l'oeil, which is to say, the faithful reproduction of a photographic image on canvas is a trompe l'oeil style. Consciousness of the medium is an intentional outcome and at no time is Photorealism designed to trick the eye and fool the viewer.


One working technique adopted by several early Photorealists was to project the image of a photograph onto the canvas, which oftentimes would be inverted or turned upside down. The artist then divides the canvas into an intricate grid system, whereby he or she is able to focus in up close, similar to examining pixels in a high-resolution digital photo, and incrementally copy the smallest line or shadow or miscellaneous detail. This approach is most recognizable in the paintings of Chuck Close, who creates his larger-than-life portraits using a gridded photograph and, always beginning from the canvas' left-hand corner, applies small and precise brushstrokes that take shape over time. Perhaps more so than any other painting style or medium in the modern era, the gridding system demonstrates the exacting technical prowess that is required of Photorealist painters.

Photorealist Sculpture

Similar to Photorealist paintings which mimic the imagery and visual effects of a two-dimensional photograph, Photorealist sculptures are designed to mimic individual objects or people, and often does so on an exaggerated scale. At times, Photorealist sculpture can fool the eye and play with perception. Such sculptors as Duane Hanson produce eerily lifelike works that are dressed in actual clothing and accompanied by actual objects -- coffee cups, shopping bags, and other pedestrian materials. Because these pieces, or the artist's sculptures of everyday people, appear in the special context of art museums and galleries, the viewer is challenged to extract the work's meaning within this rarified context. Further complicating the visual effects is the fact that there tends to be an evident artificiality to the sculpture's surface, whether through the use of shiny fiberglass or plaster or wood.

Later Developments - After Photorealism

New advancements in photography brought about new advancements in the practice of Photorealism, allowing both painter and sculptor to focus on minute details of a particular subject that in earlier decades may have been harder to dissect with such precision. The term originated in 1973, from the French Hyperréalisme, by Belgian art dealer Isy Brachot. After an exhibition at Brachot's gallery in Brussels (which included a number of the original Photorealists), the moniker Hyperrealism would eventually come to represent the work of a succeeding generation of painters, namely the Spaniard Agustin Reche Mora and American Denis Peterson.

By the late-20th century, a new generation of American and European artists was producing portraits and still lifes that provided stunning degrees of clarity. But what set these works apart from their Photorealist predecessors was that Hyper-realist artists had no interest in recreating a scene from a photograph. Instead, they constructed a fiction comprised of a variety of images and details culled from multiple sources, much in the way Synthetist artists in the Post-Impressionism era would create paintings derived de tête (from memory or imagination) rather than from any visual aid, natural or otherwise.

The overall intent of the artists working in Photorealist and Hyperrealist veins has changed as well. No longer satisfied with an art-for-art's sake approach to realist cityscapes and the like, such painters as Denis Peterson have recently used the medium as vehicle of social change, oftentimes conjuring themes of corruption, decadence, and genocide in his subject matter. Variations of Photorealism, Hyperrealism, Superrealism and other permutations of the style continue throughout the contemporary art world, most noticeably with painters like Richard Prince and Kehinde Wiley.

Key Artists

  • Chuck Close is an American painter and photographer who achieved fame as a photorealist through his large-scale portraits. Though a catastrophic spinal artery collapse in 1988 left him severely paralyzed, he has continued to paint and produce work that remains sought after by museums and collectors.
  • Richard Estes was an American artist and one of the founding figures of the Photorealist movement of the late 1960s. Playing with the optical effects of reflective surfaces and natural light, his work largely deals with the postwar urban environment, depicting the ornate window displays, shiny storefront veneers, and expansive cityscape views of New York City.
  • A pioneer of the Photorealist movement of the late twentieth century, Ralph Goings' compelling work explores themes of American identity. Characterized by painstaking detail and an uncanny attention to the effects of light, his oeuvre features both interiors and still lifes, including images of rural American icons such as roadside diners and the objects and views that are found inside them.
  • Duane Hanson was an American artist and sculptor, who worked primarily in Photorealism, a Pop-influenced style. Best known for his uncanny, life-size depictions of solitary tourists, derelicts, and housewives, his work explores social issues and the complexities of American identity.
  • Audrey Flack's innovative contributions to the Photorealist and Feminist movements include paintings of still-life compositions and monumental sculptures of mythical female figures.

Do Not Miss

  • British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
  • The artistic history of the US stretches from indigenous art and Hudson River School into Contemporary art. Enjoy our guide through the many American movements.

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Photorealism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Dec 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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