Photorealistic painting of a street in New York
Richard Estes, Times Square at 3:53 P.M., Winter, 1985. Sold $730,000


About Photorealism

What is Photorealism?

Ralph Goings, Relish, 1994. Sold for $481,000

Photorealism describes a highly realistic style of art that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s in New York and California. Using photographic images rather than direct observation as the primary visual reference, artists employed a variety of techniques to achieve stunning levels of verisimilitude. The movement was not organized in any formal way; rather, it emerged organically through the roughly contemporaneous experiments of a largely unconnected group of artists. Informed by Pop Art and Minimalism, the Photorealists similarly reacted against the individualism and spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism, favoring meticulously planned and executed portrayals of quotidian life. Emphasizing technical prowess and virtuosity, Photorealism represented the ultimate rebuke to abstraction in its exaltation of representational imagery.

Meticulously detailed and uncannily realistic, Photorealist art concerns itself not with representing the world as it actually exists, but as it is seen by a camera.

Characteristics & Style of Photorealism

Photorealist painter Chuck Close photographed in 1981 at his retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Meticulously detailed and uncannily realistic, Photorealist art concerns itself not with representing the world as it actually exists, but as it is seen by a camera. Accordingly, the genre is typified by a sense of detachment and visual coolness, with smooth, un-painterly surfaces underscoring the lack of affectation. Unlike tromp l’oiel, with which Photorealism is sometimes erroneously confused, no attempt is made to fool the eye; the viewer’s awareness that they are looking at a two-dimensional painted image is in fact central to the Photorealistic effect.

To achieve the highest degree of representational fidelity, artists would typically project and enlarge photographic images directly onto the canvas, using gridding techniques to precisely replicate every detail. Others combined multiple photographic studies to complicate the sense of compositional depth. Emphasizing technical acumen over heroic self-expression, reflective surfaces like glass and chrome make frequent appearances; mundane subject matter – from industrial machinery and icons of consumer culture to closely cropped head-on portraits – further highlight the sense of anonymity.

Legacy of Photorealism

Kehinde Wiley, Charles I, 2018. Sold for $300,000

Advancements in photography presented a unique challenge to the visual arts, and for realist painting in particular. In its nascence, the Photorealist movement was met with considerable criticism for its reliance on the photographic image, which critics dismissed as copying rather than creating. The style, however, eventually gained widespread acceptance. No longer the enemy of “high” art, the camera could be leveraged as an important tool in the artistic process, a development which has had far-reaching implications for both painting and photography. In the immediate wake of Photorealism, a new generation of Hyperrealist artists like Denis Peterson leveraged advancements in high-resolution photography to achieve heightened levels of detail, further complicating the notion of realism by mixing the seemingly objective with the artificial and subjective. Today, Photorealist tendencies continue to influence a diverse array of contemporary artists, including Richard Prince, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Koons and Kehinde Wiley.

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Timeline & History of Photorealism

  • 1968
    Chuck Close paints the iconic Big Self Portrait, the first work to showcase his signature mug-shot style of portraiture.

    (pictured) Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait, 1968. © Chuck Close, courtesy Pace Gallery
  • Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
    Richard Estes, whose photorealistic experimentations began around 1967, paints Telephone Booths. The piece exemplifies his virtuosic command of reflection, light and compositional depth.

    (pictured) Photorealist artist Richard Estes in 1971. Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
  • 1969
    Gallerist Louis K. Meisel coins the term “Photorealism”.

    (pictured) Robert Cottingham, HA, 1971
  • 1970
    “Photorealism” appears in print for the first time in the catalog for the Whitney’s 22 Realists exhibition.

    (pictured) The cover of the 22 Realists exhibition catalogue, by James K Monte, 1970. Courtesy: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1970. Digitising sponsor Metropolitan New York Library Council
  • 1972
    Meisel publishes a five-point definition of the movement; however, a manifesto is never adopted and artists adhere to Meisel’s criteria to varying degrees.

    (pictured) Duane Hanson, Artist With Ladder, 1972. Sold for $375,000
  • 1972
    Photorealist works by Chuck Close, Richard Estes, Ralph Goings and others are included in documenta 5, garnering international attention.

    (pictured) documenta 5 catalogue, 1972
  • 1973
    The term “Hyperrealism” (from the French Hyperréalisme) is coined by Belgian art dealer Isy Brachot. It is applied to a succeeding generation of painters who use new advancements in photography to dissect images with even greater precision, and imbue their work with elements of narrative, emotionality and political consciousness.

    (pictured) Richard Estes, State Island Ferry With View of East River, 1993. Sold for £62,400


Who are the Photorealist Artists?

Working largely independently, the original group of Photorealists emerged chiefly around New York and California. Among the most influential, Chuck Close is known for his giant, systematically rendered mug-shot style portraits; Richard Estes, for his gleaming, meticulously detailed cityscapes; Ralph Goings, for his sharp portrayals of diners, pickup trucks and gas stations; and Audrey Flack, the sole female practitioner, for her vibrant still-life arrangements. While the style is predominantly associated with painting, a number of sculptors also worked in the Photorealist idiom, including Duane Hanson, known for his eerily lifelike sculptures of everyday people.

Photorealists at Auction

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