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Photorealism Collage


Started: Early 1960s

Photorealism Timeline


"I always wanted to draw realistically. For me art is a continuous discovery into reality, an exploration of visual data which has been going on for centuries, each artist contributing to the next generation's advancement. I wanted to go a step further and extend the boundaries. I also believe people have a deep need to understand their world and that art clarifies reality for them."
Audrey Flack
"What difference does it make whether you're looking at a photograph or looking at a still life in front of you? You still have to look."
Chuck Close
"I think most paintings are a record of the decisions that the artist made. I just perhaps make them a little clearer than some people have."
Chuck Close
"Unfortunately it has been too easy for anybody to take a photograph, trace it, and make a lousy painting. Photorealism, in that sense, has been bastardized. I can sympathize with a lot of people who just reject it outright, because, like anything else, there is so much bad stuff around. I always thought of myself as a Realist painter."
Richard Estes
"I do feel an affinity with all realist painters; I don't really consider someone a painter unless the individual is a realist. I love realist painting no matter what it is, but it’s certainly got to be a painting of something."
Richard Estes
"I thought, enough of this, I'm not an abstract painter, what the hell am I going to do? Should I get a job in a shoe store, sell real estate, or what? I was really depressed by the whole thing, because I felt like a painter, yet I couldn't make paintings."
Ralph Goings


Chuck CloseChuck Close
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Richard EstesRichard Estes
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Ralph GoingsRalph Goings
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Malcolm MorleyMalcolm Morley
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Duane HansonDuane Hanson
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Audrey FlackAudrey Flack
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"Sometimes I really want to paint somebody and I don't get a photograph that I want to work from."

Chuck Close Signature


The name Photorealism (also known as Hyperrealism or Superrealism) was coined in reference to those artists whose work depended heavily on photographs, which they often projected onto canvas allowing images to be replicated with precision and accuracy. The exactness was often aided further by the use of an airbrush, which was originally designed to retouch photographs. The movement came about within the same period and context as Conceptual art, Pop art, and Minimalism and expressed a strong interest in realism in art, over that of idealism and abstraction. Among several male practitioners of Photorealism there is an interest in themes of machinery and objects of industry such as trucks, motorcycles, cars, and even gumball machines, whereas Audrey Flack, the sole female practitioner, infuses her works with greater emotionality and the transience of life. Ultimately, the Photorealists were successful in attracting a wide audience, but they are often overlooked by art historians as an important avant garde style.

Key Ideas

To a degree not previously accomplished, Photorealism complicates the notion of realism by successfully mixing together that which is real with that which is unreal. While the image on the canvas is recognizable and carefully delineated to suggest that it is accurate, the artist often based their work upon photographs rather than direct observation. Therefore, their canvases remain distanced from reality factually and metaphorically.
Many Photorealists adamantly insist that their works, which are laden with such mass and consumer culture icons as trucks, fast food restaurants, and mechanical toys, are not communicative of social criticism or commentary. However, it is hard to deny that these works are recognizably American. At times, the actual work rather than the artist's words is our most useful guide. In this manner, there is the contrast between the reality and primacy of the word or text, over the visual within our society.
Since the advent of photography in the early 19th-century artists have used the camera as a tool in picture making; however, artists would never reveal in paint their dependency on photographs as to do so was seen as "cheating". In contrast, Photorealists acknowledge the modern world's mass production and proliferation of photographs, and they do not deny their dependence on photographs. In fact, several artists attempt to ape the effects that photography, rather than the vision of the eye, such as blurriness, multiple-viewpoints, because they favor the aesthetic and look. Therefore, while the resulting image is realistic, it is simultaneously one-stage away from reality by its dependence on the reproduced image. These works question traditional artistic methods, as well as the differences between reality and artificiality.
The representation of light, as well as the interaction of light and color together has concerned artists throughout the ages. By using slide machines to project images onto bare canvas Photorealism for the first time unites color and light together as one element. The capturing of light is most especially evident in the highly reflective surfaces of steel and chrome.
Photorealists, along with some practitioners of Pop art, reintroduced the importance of process and deliberate planning over that of improvisation and automatism, into the making of art, draftsmanship, and exacting brushwork. In other words, the traditional techniques of academic art are again of great significance, and painstaking craftsmanship is prized after decades of the spontaneous, accidental, and improvisational.

Most Important Art

Photorealism Famous Art

McDonalds Pickup (1970)

Artist: Ralph Goings
Here, the artist Ralph Goings has selected a rather pedestrian view as his subject - a jeep, McDonald's, and the American flag. Goings paints these icons of the American highways with great attention to detail, aided in large part by using photographs. The artist has chosen to remove such extraneous details as people and detritus that would detract from the canvas's subject matter. In this manner, Goings along with other Photorealists has diversified the traditional artistic genres maintained since the seventeenth century. He paints such banal subjects with great care so that together with the artist we consider what in fact comprises American culture. In lieu of the great cathedrals of Europe with their vaulted arches, America - he seems to suggest - has these "golden" arches to herald its cultural heritage.
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Photorealism Artworks in Focus:


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 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.

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Photorealism Overview Continues

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.

Concepts and Styles

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

Similiar 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

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 twentieth 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.

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Photorealism





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Photorealism: 50 Years of Hyperrealistic Painting Recomended resource

By Linda Chase, Nina Knoll

Photorealism At the Millennium Recomended resource

By Louis K. Meisel, Linda Chase

Hyper Real: The Passion of the Real in Painting and Photography

By Brigitte Franzen, Susanne Neuburger


By Louis K. Meisel

More Interesting Books about Photorealism


In the Republic of Realism Recomended resource

By Mark Gisbourne for Deutsche Bank Art works

Chuck Close's Photo Maquettes Reveal Origins of Photorealistic Paintings Recomended resource

Huffington Post
April 3, 2013

Photorealism Champion Louis Meisel on Bringing His Preeminent Collection to New Jersey Recomended resource

September 20, 2011

Huge Photorealism Exhibition Opens at Mana Contemporary

By Brendan Carroll
Jersey City Independent
September 13, 2011

More Interesting Videos about Photorealism
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