"Sometimes I really want to paint somebody and I don't get a photograph that I want to work from."
1 of 7
Chuck Close Signature
"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."
2 of 7
Audrey Flack Signature
"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."
3 of 7
Chuck Close Signature
"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."
4 of 7
Chuck Close Signature
"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."
5 of 7
Richard Estes Signature
"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."
6 of 7
Richard Estes Signature
"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."
7 of 7
Ralph Goings Signature

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

  • 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 replicate the effects of photography (getting away from the natural vision of our eyes) such as blurriness or 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.

Overview of Photorealism

Chuck Close, self-portrait (2016). Ceramic tile at the 86th's Street Subway Station in New York City

"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

  • 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.

Important Art and Artists of Photorealism

Self-Portrait (1967-68)

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.

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 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.

Supreme Hardware Store (1974)

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.

Useful Resources on Photorealism

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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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