Photo-Realism

What is Photo-Realism?

Photo-Realism (also known as Super-Realism) was a primarily American art movement that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Photo-realism used photography as the main visual reference to create highly realistic and extremely detailed images. The movement was dominated by painters such as Richard Estes (1932 -), Charles Bell (1935 – 1995), Chuck Close (1940 -), Audrey Flack (1931 -), and Ralph Goings (1928 – 2016). Rare names of photo-realist sculptors include Duane Hanson (1925 – 1996) and John De Andrea (1941 -).

Notable Photo-Realism Artworks

Principles of Photo-Realism

The term “Photo-realism” was coined by an American art dealer Louis K. Meisel in 1969, who officially used it for the first time in the catalog of the 1970 Whitney Museum exhibition “Twenty-two Realists.” Photo-realism grew out of Pop Art, favoring representation and realism over abstraction and non-representation of Abstract Expressionism, which was the predominant painting style in the US for many years. Both the Photo-realists and Pop Art artists reintroduced the importance of pre-planning and craftsmanship in art over spontaneous and improvisational art practices. But perhaps the most vital link between the two movements was that they featured familiar objects and mundane scenes from the contemporary consumer culture. Photo-realism art’s prevalent subject matter was the American urban landscape, such as parking lots, roadside diners, and street scenes. Their work was not a social commentary but rather a portrayal of the “everydayness” of American life of the time. The Photo-realists also practiced two traditional genres of painting: portraiture and still life.

Photo-Realism Technique

In their work, photo-realist painters relied heavily on photographs, creating artworks in a highly illusionistic manner that referred not to nature but rather the reproduced image. They painted their paintings with a lot of detail and precision to make them resemble a photograph as closely as possible. The idea was to create a simulated reality with an emotionally detached, impersonal effect. This approach required great technical skill to depict the reflective surfaces of objects, shadows, and various details without any visible brushstrokes.

Photo-realism’s frequent association with the trompe l’oeil art genre is essentially incorrect because the strict definition of trompe l’oeil implies a painting technique intended to deceive the viewers into believing that they are looking at a real object and not a painting. Quite the contrary, Photo-realism is designed so that the viewers are fully aware that they are looking at a painting, that is, a painted image of a photograph, and in no way intends to deceive the viewer and his eye.

To accurately simulate the quality of a photograph, the Photo-realists used a projector to project pictures onto the canvas, which was then divided into a grid system so they can focus up close and produce intensely-detailed and highly illusionistic paintings. This technique is most noticeable in Chuck Close’s larger-than-life portraits. Like the painters, who relied on photographs, the sculptors cast their lifelike figures of ordinary people from live models, along with simulated hair and real clothes.

The Successors of Photo-Realist Artists

By the end of the 20th century, a new generation of painters emerged, producing paintings of stunning degrees of clarity and detail primarily influenced by the further advancement in photography. This succeeding generation, including Denis Peterson, Gottfried Helnwein, and Carole A. Feuerman to name a few represented the so-called Hyper-realism. The term is often used synonymously with Photo-realism, although Hyper-realism is more a variation or rather evolution of the movement with its distinctive characteristics. Unlike their Photo-realist predecessors, who focused on pure representation and faithful reproduction of a photograph on canvas, Hyper-realist artists used various images sourced from multiple sources to construct a painting that suggested narratives related to social, cultural, political, and historical issues. Variations of Photo-realism and Hyper-realism continue to evolve to this day, most noticeably with painters like Tjalf Sparnaay, Kehinde Wiley, Nur Koçak, and Arinze Stanley Egbengwu, among others.

Notable Photo-Realist Artists

  • Richard Estes (1932 -), American
  • Charles Bell (1935 – 1995), American
  • Robert Bechtle (1932 – 2020), American
  • Chuck Close (1940 -), American
  • Don Eddy (1944 -), American
  • Audrey Flack (1931 -), American
  • Ralph Goings (1928 – 2016), American
  • Duane Hanson (1925 – 1996), American
  • John De Andrea (1941 -), American
  • John Baeder (1938 -), American
  • Mary Pratt (1935 – 2018), Canadian
  • Robert Cottingham (1935 -), American

Related Art Terms

  • Photography
  • Realism
  • Super-realism
  • Hyper-realism
  • Pop Art
  • Trompe l’oeil
  • Illusionism
  • Americana

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