Started: Early 1960s
Sometimes I really want to paint somebody and I don't get a photograph that I want to work from.

Summary of Photorealism

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 & Accomplishments

Overview of Photorealism

"I am as interested in the artificial as I am in the real," Chuck Close said. His photographic approach to painting portraits launched Photorealism.

Key Artists

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Progression of Art



Artist: Chuck Close

A large, unshaven man with unkempt hair smoking a cigarette constitutes this work's subject matter, which is Close's self-portrait. Through the use of black and white, Close emphasizes his slovenly appearance and highlights the labor that goes into making art, as well as the unglamorous nature of being an artist. In this manner, he turns the long tradition of artists' self-portraiture on its head.

With his exacting work method, Close first puts down a light pencil matrix for scaling up a photograph and then sketches in the image with an airbrush; he finishes the work by hand painting in the many details. This enables him to work on a large, expressive scale while also maintain the sense of verisimilitude. Close introduced the human element into Photorealism through his numerous, enlarged portraits.

The painter turned to creating portraits, in part, to refute critic Clement Greenberg's claim that it was impossible for an "advanced" artist to paint portraiture. Because Close methodically paints in a grid his work has drawn comparison to such Minimalists as Agnes Martin and Sol Lewitt. He has established a reputation independent of Photorealism and is considered one of contemporary art's leading figures and portraitists.

Acrylic on canvas - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis


McDonalds Pickup

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 17th 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.

Oil on canvas


Supreme Hardware Store

Artist: Richard Estes

In this painting, we view a run-down, cluttered city filled with reflective signs and storefronts, awash with bold signage and lettering. This unremarkable setting, however, is painted with the utmost care and precision, a testament to Richard Estes' craftsmanship. Estes has stated the pragmatic reason he bases his paintings on photographs: "It's silly to work from drawings when I can do better with photographs." Painted in 1974, the height of Photorealism, works such as this by Estes were acclaimed for their urban aesthetic that reflected New York City as the city was on the threshold of bankruptcy. The artist's work method differs from that of other Photorealists in that he neither uses a grid system, nor a projector to transfer his images onto the canvas. With his great attention to detail and realism, Richard Estes helped to bring the academic tradition of easel painting back into vogue, aspiring to reflect a sense of beauty found in past artistic periods, such as the Flemish art of Jan Van Eyck. Besides his urban subject matter, Estes technical prowess is one of his main contributions to Photorealism.

Oil and acrylic on canvas


The Woman Eating

Artist: Duane Hanson

This sculpture is a life-size woman seated at a cafeteria table, plainly dressed, with her bags and packages by her side. The woman is dressed in actual clothes and her belongs, also, are real objects. Overweight, not particularly attractive, Hanson's statue goes against the grain of artists beautifying the female form. Likely to fool the eye, it is only when the viewer gets up close to the work that the tiniest of brush strokes reveal the work's artificiality. Hanson's statues are usually located in the refined spaces of art museums and galleries, which renders imagery of ordinary folk into fine art. Hanson admitted to presenting a social message via his sculptures, expressing a sense of the resignation, emptiness and loneliness of suburban existence. Here, there is an aspect of pathos to the solitary woman eating alone, especially if we consider that within a museum she becomes an object of study and inadvertent stares. As with Chuck Close, Hanson focuses on human beings as his subject matter, rather than the reflective glass and chrome of other Photorealists. Hanson makes his viewers question who is worthy of being an artistic subject; what is the viewer's social relation to the statue/person and any other association between the strange presence and us.

Polyester resin, fiberglass, polychromed in oil paint with clothes, table, chair and accessories - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC


Circus Act

Artist: Charles Bell

In the playful Circus Act, Charles Bell depicts two colorful and simple metal toys. He positions the toys as if mid-motion, like a circus procession, expressing wonderment- a quality that is prevalent throughout Bell's work. The painter focuses on small and insignificant objects, making them the subjects of his work, in order to question our culture values, as well as to play with the interplay of high and low culture. With his interest in mass produced, often inexpensively made objects, Bells makes high art of low culture, or here, out of child's play. Remarkably, the artist did not receive any formal artistic training. He is praised for his technical abilities, most notably his ability to create high-glossy surfaces and shiny objects.

Silkscreen on paper - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC


World War II (Vanitas)

Artist: Audrey Flack

Before us is a still-life arrangement that juxtaposes beautiful and sumptuous objects such as the red rose, strand of pearls, and small desserts, with an iconic photograph of the Holocaust. Audrey Flack addresses the Jewish Holocaust, memory, and the fragility of life appropriating Margaret Bourke-White's iconic black and white photograph taken at the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp in 1945, which she surrounds with such traditional emblems of loss and the passage of time as a watch, a rose, a butterfly, and a burning candle (perhaps a memorial or yahrzeit candle). Flack states that the red candle which drips wax reminiscent of blood is "a memorial to bridge time between 1945 and the present, to burn always in the present." In addition, she includes such specific Jewish objects as a six-pointed Jewish star from her own keychain, as well as texts related to Jewish culture and religion. These objects and symbols communicate traditional art historical idea about the transience of life (pieces of fruit going bad) and of beauty that will fade. Flack utilizes modern technology and work methods in service of centuries-old artistic concerns and subject matter, making momento-mori (Latin: Remember you, too, will die) for our era. Vanitas speaks of contrasts, that of death as well as life with its elements of beauty. Towards the borders of the work Flack has painted traces of a rainbow, the sign given to Noah that the world would survive. Ultimately, survival - as the men in the photograph had survived the death camps - is the work's summarizing message.

Oil over acrylic on canvas - Private Collection



Artist: Malcolm Morley

Before us, is an up-close image of professional football players in mid-action. There are no hidden messages in British artist's work that tended to depict subjects that have a larger than life quality. Morley brings a sensationalist attitude to Photorealism. This trait also endows his paintings with a form of expressionism to Morley's paintings, which have a comic book like quality without the cartoonish effects of some Pop art works, like those of Roy Lichtenstein (a predecessor whom Morley admires greatly). Morley succeeds at evoking tension and the anticipation of pain, and the image itself is a snapshot of rapid motion, which is quite unusual among Photorealist works. Incidentally, Morley has stated his preference for the moniker of Superrealism, rather than Photorealism.

Oil on linen - Private Collection


Diogenes II

Artist: Denis Peterson

A gray-haired man slumbers in public on a park bench during daytime that seems somewhat inappropriate. Peterson's exacting drawing and painting enables him to paint literal interpretations of high-resolution photographs, achieving an even greater verisimilitude than others - his images are sharper, more literal interpretations. This is in part due to his use of more sophisticated imaging tools than was available at the beginnings of Photorealism. He sought such heightened believability in order to further push social issues into the art world, similar to sculptor Duane Hanson. Peterson titled his work after the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic who made a virtue of poverty and begged for a living. Anointing the sleeping, somewhat disheveled figure with the same name of the philosopher both ennobles the man and interjects a note of irony. Diogenes II is a typical Peterson work in that it juxtaposes scenes of poverty with everyday city life. Peterson is known for his fine draftsmanship and is technically more advanced than prior Photorealists. His techniques and effects illustrate that Photorealism, while based in the 1970s, continues on and that new technological advancements offers both challenges and opportunities to the artists.

Acrylic on panel - Private Collection

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.

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