a photorealism exhibit at Yale 2013

Photorealism: Why paint a photograph when you have a photograph?

I have a compulsion for taking photos of buildings. My overwhelming digital files argue as much.

I find that taking photos slows me down. It forces me, or allows me time, to look at light in a focused way, to inspect compositions and lines, to notice more detail. For me the act of taking a photo is a way of seeing. The photo itself allows a small piece of the environment to stand on its own.

Is the photo a work of art? Some say yes, some say no.

Would a painting of the photo be a work of art? Again, some say yes, some say no.

There is a whole movement of art that uses photos of the built environment as the starting point for perfectly detailed and realistic painting. It’s called Photorealism. The time and attention needed to create one of these paintings, to me, is astonishing.

I’m not a painter. I don’t know exactly how that tips the scales in how impressed one might be with Photorealist paintings, but let me tell you, I’m very impressed! The intricate, realistic, and perfectly shaded detail makes many paintings require a double-take – “Are you sure that’s not a photograph?”

(See Davis Cone and Rod Penner.)

The painter John Baeder, known primarily for his paintings of diners in the 1970s and 1980s, never considered the photographs he took – from which he started his paintings – to be anything more than a tool. He considered them notes rather than a high-quality work of art. It wasn’t until decades later that he had a gallery showing of his photographs.

Where Photorealism Began

The period of Photorealist painting began in the late 1960s and is characterized by an intensely realistic level of detail.

The popular photorealists from the early generation include Robert Bechtle, Ralph Goings, Richard Estes, Audrey flack, John Baeder, to name a few.

Bechtle is thought to be the first “photorealist painter” due to his documented use of photographs as the visual reference in 1964. The commonality among photorealists was the use of photos or slides as the reference point and the aim of recreating that image, rather than the likeness of the subject. He began working with and showing his work for Ivan Karp at OK Harris Works of Art in New York City, in 1969 (and by association to Louis Meisel).

Credit for coining and defining the term Photorealism is given to Louis K. Meisel, a New York City collector and gallerist. To qualify as photorealist, he emphasized that an artist must use a camera and photograph, and have a process for transferring the image to canvas.

7 minute YouTube video of Estes paintings

Photorealism is considered an art form from America. Perhaps because of the focus on everyday landscapes, it’s sometimes called American Realism. But since that term is associated with Edward Hopper, that indicates a different style. Additionally, American Realism comes much earlier (1920 and 1930s) and does not follow the same level of detail. Hopper is in no way considered a hyperrealist or photorealist painter.

(Photorealism is also different from the “Immaculates” or “Precisionists” who painted industrial scenes of the 1920s and 30s, such as Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth.)

Photorealism is sometimes interchanged with Hyperrealism, which has a similar level of detail. But the difference can be in the subject matter. Photorealism is more representational of reality. In the case of Hyperrealism, is it often evoking a future, interpreting the future, or prompting strong emotion.  

That said, some Photorealist artists are reductive or additive in changing aspects of the experience. In Photorealist painting the artist has the ability to select what should be in the composition. Most painters seem to take some artistic liberties in addition and subtraction (changing cars, changing the drapes inside a café, removing buildings entirely). This is not unique to Photorealism.

John Baeder explained that by eliminating nonessential signage, cars, and other elements, he would omit potential distractions from essential relationships. “This helped someone see something as simple as an oil spill on the pavement.”

While Photorealism didn’t have one unified ideology, and realistic portraiture holds an important place in its development, its subject matter usually reflects the American cultural landscape, or the everyday landscape, including cityscapes and urban street scenes, as well as suburban houses, commercial strips, storefronts, cars, and signs.

Yale University photorealism xhibit poster


Critic and consultant John Arthur explained that the most banal and garish aspects of the urban landscape seem to provide the grist for photorealist paintings, even if a building is aesthetically boring. (Quoted in Richard Estes: The Urban Landscape 1978)

“Photorealism delights in depicting the humdrum world of cars, trucks, motorcycles, storefronts and signs, diners, displays, toys, vending machines, and a host of unmemorable street scenes and semi urban landscapes. … We see and quickly comprehend the overall subject matter of a photorealist work while at the same time realizing that it is a hand done painting, painstakingly realized, inch by inch, with each portion equally valued.”

From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today

My love of vernacular, everyday landscapes and signage contributes to my love of this style. When I see realist paintings of mundane landscape paintings, I appreciate the time and effort that the painter has invested in creating the work of art – that I so easily compose through photography.

I’m curious what the place means to them to prompt the loving and time-consuming portrayal of such an ordinary (taken for granted) structure or scene.

John Baeder had a love of the objects he painted, famous for his documentation of diners and classic cars. He repeatedly used the word passion to describe the material culture he sought out, photographed, and painted. Baeder actively sought to capture a fading and earlier time in America. He saw the objects as American treasures, worthy of study, of being the subject of a painting, and of preservation.

Books covers and links of works by and about John Baeder

Does Realist Art Mean Anything?

Part of the critique of the movement is its apparent lack of need for interpretation. Its straightforwardness or lack of imagination on the part of the artist. Some artists say the goal is recreating the photograph – painstakingly recording the information.

Ralph Goings felt emphasis should be placed on specific, objective things and places, not generalizations or the essences. Richard Estes, Tom Blackwell, Ron Kleeman, and others focused on surface, reflection, and light. Baeder openly altered colors and added favorite cars at his whim.

Robert Bechtle was fascinated by painting things that we don’t pay attention to – invisibility of subject matter. His paintings, more than others, reflect actual family snapshots with mundane backdrops such as cars and suburban houses.

The photorealist movement of the 1960s was a moment of intersection for painting and photography. The modern aspects of the style were the informality of the scene, the everyday nature of the subject matter. It wasn’t a staged or perfected garden or monumental architecture. That was innovative and different.

Also, the large-scale format of the pieces surpassed the technological capacity of photographic printing in the 1960s. So, the paintings could produce an image size that cameras could not, creating a new perspective and way of interacting with the subject.

These aspects are what made Photorealism relevant and groundbreaking in an era focused on Pop Art and Abstraction.

The largest Photorealism retrospective in Europe (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 2014), 2 min video

Sultan and Kalina state in Photorealism 1969 to Today that there are fewer artists today who take deep satisfaction in spending months and months of diligent small-scaled work on a painting whose final appearance is almost completely known in advance. But there is a steady stream of new artists who self-select into the movement, which has been consistent in style for nearly 50 years. However, it might feel dated when some of the postwar age scenes become unknown, “or worse, quaint.”

Some of the contemporary artists are T. Michael Ward, Rod Penner, Bertrand Meniel. Raphaella Spence, I hope to be able to share more about them in the future. I’m leaving so many great artists out of this post.

What are your thoughts on Photorealism, how it compares to other artistic expressions, and its merit?

See The Art Story.org for a history and timeline on photorealist artists

Check out this high speed video of Robert Bechtel painting, 2 minutes

My series of interviews with realist artists who focus on the house.

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