Photorealism and Its Impact on Contemporary Art

photorealist image of the Holland Hotel by Richard Estes Richard Estes, "Holland Hotel," 1980. Sold for $7,500 via Sotheby's (October 2018).

Photorealism—also referred to as superrealism—is a genre established by American author and art dealer Louis K. Meisel in 1969. Rather than observing events in real-time, the style was inspired by photography, using the visual information captured by a camera to create illusionistic paintings, drawings, and other works of art. Artists would often project photographs onto canvas to allow the images to be captured with precision and accuracy.

Favoring representation over abstraction, photorealism emerged during the same period that produced a variety of disparate art movements, including Conceptual art, Pop art, and Minimalism. On its relationship to contemporaneous genres, arts writer Vivien Raynor once wrote that photorealism “…came out of Pop [art] yet had the affectlessness of Minimalism and, at the same time, capitalized on the public’s fondness for exact replication.”

While its formative stages began in the United States (most notably in New York and California), it became an international movement. It continued into the 1970s at its peak, and though it had a relatively quick demise, its impact on the trajectory of contemporary art remains.

What is Photorealism?

Jan Anders Nelson, “American Landscape,” 1975.

Photorealism is a genre in which artists paint an image originally captured on film. Artists would often develop and project the original image to capture the microscopic exactness of it. With a photograph as the primary visual reference, revolutionary photorealists such as Richard Estes, Chuck Close, Charles Bell, Audrey Flack, and others painted with the goal of photographic accuracy. According to Thomas Albright, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, photorealism was when the “intervention between the painting and objects served to neutralize the original subject of the picture.”

Photorealism vs. Hyperrealism

Photorealism and hyperrealism are both genres of contemporary art. The two are often used interchangeably when each, in fact, have their own distinct characteristics. Hyperrealism grew out of photorealism. While the latter focused on form and figurative art, producing paintings that used technical precision to create something as lifelike as possible, hyperrealism focused on more than just technique.

The fundamental difference between photorealism and hyperrealism is emotion. Photorealists were interested in pure representation, where hyperrealists explored emotion and intent, offering suggested narratives in their works.

A Brief History of Photorealism

Charles Bell, “Gumball No. 9,” 1975. Sold for $343,500 via Christie’s (November 2004).

Photorealism emerged in the late 1960s, building on Pop art and Minimalist movements that preceded it. Richard Estes, Chuck Close, and Ralph Goings were some of the first to attempt exact replication of photographic imagery, and as a result, are often thought of as the founders of the movement.

The term was officially coined by Louis K. Meisel when it appeared in a print as a part of the 1970 Whitney Museum Catalogue, “Twenty-two Realists.” Later in 1973, Meisel was asked to develop a five-point definition of the term for Stuart M. Speiser, who commissioned a large collection of photorealist art that was later donated to the Smithsonian Museum. His definition included a few main points: a camera was necessary to capture the image or scene and the image from the photo must be transferred to the workspace through mechanical or semi-mechanical means.

Like Pop artists, photorealists were interested in breaking down conventional ideas of what was “appropriate” subject matter, often looking to mundane scenes from everyday life or commercial objects such as cars, trucks, or signage for inspiration. Their use and reliance on mechanical and industrial techniques also mirrored that of their Pop art predecessors. The movement was, in many ways, a reaction to the expansion of photographic media, and in the early 1990s, a renewed interest in photorealism emerged due to the availability of new technology such as cameras and digital equipment—which offered even greater precision.

Photorealism Techniques and Key Characteristics

Ralph Goings, “Sacramento Airport,” (1970).

Hallmarks of photorealism include thorough attention-to-detail as artists strive to reproduce minute details of a projected photograph with accuracy and precision. Often, many will create small studies to work through elements of the work’s composition, perspective, form, light and shadow before embarking on the final work. There are key techniques and elements included in the process of photorealism, which are outlined below:

  • Use of a camera and photograph to capture an image
  • Use of a mechanical or semi-mechanical means (projector, grid method, or transfer paper) to transmit photographic information to a support (a canvas, sheet of paper, wooden panel, etc.)
  • Technical ability of the artist to make the finished work appear photographic
  • Astute attention to quality and detail
  • An emphasis on process and planning over improvisation

Influential Photorealist Artists

Charles Bell

Charles Bell was an American photorealist who depicted everyday subject matter in large, grandiose format. He would enlarge ordinary objects like gumball machines and other instantly recognizable childhood toys to create large-scale still life paintings which can be seen in his 1975 work, Gum Ball No. 10: “Sugar Daddy.”

Chuck Close

Notable practitioner of the craft Chuck Close creates monumental portraits through exacting realism that utilize scale, color, and form. He is most recognized for his gridded application that takes individual color squares to form a unified, realistic image from afar. This technique is realized in his 1998 painting Agnes, a tribute to his friend Agnes Martin, who also used the grid technique.

Robert Cottingham

Robert Cottingham, “Ritz Hotel,” 1982. Sold for $8,000 via Doyle New York (November 2002).

Brooklyn-born photorealist Robert Cottingham is best known for his depiction of urban American landscapes and typefaces, particularly focusing on building facades, neon signage, movie marquees, and storefronts. His works are displayed in radically cropped compositions which can be seen in some of his famous compositions like Candy (1979) and Women-Girls (2000).

Richard Estes

American artist Richard Estes is known for his paintings of New York City streets, showcasing an urban aesthetic which he often composed using multiple photographs. Estes is known for including reflective surfaces of storefronts and car windows, which tend to uncover more detail than what the eye sees naturally. This is reflected in one of his most notable works, Supreme Hardware Store (1974), which depicts a rundown, cluttered city street filled with reflective signs and storefront windows.

Audrey Flack

Audrey Flack is a pioneer of the photorealism movement, and the first photorealist painter whose work was purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection. She uses projecting, tracing, and recoloring to produce oversized canvases that depict historical events. She later turned to sculpture to explore female representations in history.

Ralph Goings

Ralph Goings, “Still Life with Peppers,” 1981. Sold for $698,500 via Christie’s (May 2010).

Ralph Goings is one of the leading members of the photorealism movement, best known for his paintings of everyday American life. Much of Goings’ subject matter was inspired by the hardships of the Great Depression. His paintings of hamburger stands, pick-up trucks, banks, and other representations of working-class America were deliberately objective, particularly evident in some of his greatest works including American Salad (1966) and McDonald’s Pickup (1970).

Robert Longo

Robert Longo, “Study of Tiger Head 16,” 2013. Sold for HKD2,840,000 via Sotheby’s (June 2016).

Robert Longo is an American painter and sculpture who garnered much attention from his “Men in the Cities” series, which shows businessmen and women in a state of suspended animation. Longo was also a member of the Pictures Generation, a group of artists whose works were linked by the appropriation of images from mass media in the 1970s and ‘80s. The majority of his realistic artworks include an array of imagery from animals like sharks and tigers to nuclear explosions and guns.

Ben Weiner

Ben Weiner is a contemporary American artist who strives to blend the disciplines of photorealism and abstraction. Weiner photographs paint and other consumer substances at close range, then uses the resulting images as his subject matter. In 2011, he created a series of radially magnified images of thick paint.

Photorealism yielded paintings inspired by photography that depicted post-war American landscapes and the plight of the working class through staggering realism. Artists of the genre favored traditional art techniques over the spontaneity of predecessors like Abstract Expressionism, and were the first of their kind to translate information from one medium to another unapologetically. Collectors and art historians continue to revisit the staggering craftsmanship, reach, and influence of the movement.

Sources: The Art Story | Encyclopedia Britannica | Guggenheim | Tate | Art History