Understanding Photorealism  cover

Understanding Photorealism

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Photorealist paintings are replicas of photographs, not representations of directly observed phenomenal reality. Photographs are not the sources of the paintings, they are the subject of the painting. Candy shop windows, New York streets, reflecting neon signs, and 1970s cars were the subject of the photographs.


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What Is Photorealism?

What Is Photorealism?

Photorealist paintings are replicas of photographs, not representations of directly observed phenomenal reality.

Photographs are not the sources of the paintings, they are the subject of the painting. Candy shop windows, New York streets, reflecting neon signs, and 1970s cars were the subject of the photographs.

Richard Estes, Bridge, 1975

Imitate, Not Displace

Photorealism is neither a defense of painting, nor an argument in favor of restoring the medium to its former position of primacy.

Its practitioners recognized photography to be the dominant paradigm, the effects of which they sought to imitate, not displace. The centrality of the photograph in the process of creation was emphasized and the painted aspects minimized. Estes said his practice was 90% photo-based and 10% painting.

Tackle

Tackle

Malcolm Morley, Tackle, 2004.

Technology and Technique

Salvador Dalì bragged about his “old master” oil technique and scorned other modernists, whom he felt lacked technical skill.

He highly-admired the photorealists, and wrongly assumed they thought of themselves as the current practitioners of a tradition going back to Jan Van Eyck and Holbein. In reality, the photorealist painting process was a specialized application of commercial art techniques like airbrushing and photographic projection. Dalì had been trained in the old world to work with easels, oak panels and single-haired brushes. The photorealists drew the human form by tracing it. Academic life drawing classes began with tracing because it involved no special skills.

Sweet Subjects

Sweet Subjects

Richard Estes, Gordon's Gin, 1968

The Next Generation

The Next Generation

Photorealism is essentially second generation Pop Art:

it rejects abstraction in favor of figural imagery; its subjects are gleaned from consumer and popular culture.

It is affectless and deadpan in tone; it is executed partly by mechanical techniques used in commercial art and advertising; and it seeks to imitate a mechanical reproductive process. What Warhol and Lichtenstein had done with silkscreen and benday-dots, the photorealists did with the camera.

Robert Bechtle, Berkeley Pinto (John De Andrea and his Family next to Bechtle's Car), 1976.

Classic Subjects

Classic Subjects

Audrey Flack, Shiva Blue, 1973.

Magic Tricks

Magic Tricks

Finally, the degree of the illusionism achieved by Photorealists is no more convincing than Lichtenstein’s ability to replicate the outward appearance of comic books.

Comic books are badly drawn; Lichtenstein’s paintings of badly-drawn comics are masterful. Photorealism is popularly-conceived of as a magic trick or a showy demonstration of advanced technology. Audiences still astonished by representation, however, are not the viewers they had in mind.

Don Eddy, Untitled (Volkswagen), 1971.

Contemporary Interpretations

Contemporary Interpretations

Malcolm Morley, Portrait of Esses in Central Park, 1969/70.

Where the World Meets the Lens

Where the World Meets the Lens

The camera’s perceptual power exceeds that of human vision.

The images it makes we cannot see which makes the photorealist claim to accurately capture the appearance of reality only true from the camera’s point of view.

Chuck Close, Mark, 1978/79

Article courtesy of False Start

(CC BY 4.0)