Photorealism: Understanding the Mastery of Mundanity

Photorealism emerged as a new style during the 1960s and quickly became one of the world’s most influential art movements. Its widespread impact is still felt across art practices today.

Jul 21, 2020By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
bus reflection flatiron building richard estes
Bus with Reflection of the Flatiron Building by Richard Estes, 1966-67,  via Smithsonian Magazine and Marlborough Gallery, New York


Photorealism is a radical art movement from 1960s North America that saw painters copying photographs in minute detail onto huge, expansive canvases. Throughout the Photorealist movement, artists demonstrated a masterful technical virtuosity in painting that was like nothing before it, marrying together the two opposing mediums of painting and photography in a new way.


Artists as varied as Malcolm Morley, Chuck Close, and Audrey Flack adopted the photoreal style to observe the shiny new face of post-war urban culture, transforming humble or banal subjects such as old postcards, messy tabletops or storefront windows into mesmerizing works of art. But most of all the Photorealist art movement signaled a momentous period in the history of art because since then photographic material has played a vital role in the development of contemporary painting.


The Camera: A Painter’s Tool For Photorealism

SS Amsterdam in front of Rotterdam by Malcolm Morley, 1966, via Christie’s


Since its invention in the 19th-century photography inevitably had an impact on the nature and role of painting. It was no longer the role of painting to capture the accuracy of life, so painting was free to be something else altogether: many have argued this shift led 19th and 20th-century art further into the realms of abstraction, where paint could behave any way it liked. But by the early 1960s, many artists were growing tired of flinging paint around for its own sake, searching instead for something fresh and new. Enter artists Malcolm Morley and Richard Estes. British painter Morley is often cited as the first artist to explore Photorealism creating minutely detailed copies of postcards featuring idyllic ocean liners cruising through the dazzling blue water in a style he called “superrealist.” 


Diner by Richard Estes, 1971, via Smithsonian Magazine and Marlborough Gallery, New York


Hot on Morley’s heels was the American painter Richard Estes, who followed on the trend with painstakingly rendered depictions of New York’s shiny facade, from the polished windows of 1950s diners to the metallic sheen of brand-new motorcars. The reflective surfaces he employed were a deliberate showcase for his masterful command in painting and would become hugely influential on Photorealism. This new style of painting looked, initially, like a return to the traditions of realism, but in reality, it was a whole new realm of unchartered territory. What set Photorealism work apart from the highly realistic painters of the past was a deliberate attempt to replicate qualities unique to the photographic image, as outlined in the publication Art in Time: “Photorealist artists of the 1960s and 1970s investigated the kind of vision that was unique to the camera … focus, depth of field, naturalistic detail, and uniform attention to picture’s surface.” 

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Photorealism, Pop Art And Minimalism

Ironmongers by John Salt, 1981, via National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh


Like Pop Art and Minimalism, Photorealism emerged from 1950s Europe and the United States as a reaction against the wildly emotive languages of Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art came first, paving the way with a cheeky focus on the gimmicky glamour of advertising and celebrity culture injected with acid bright colors and simplified designs. Minimalism was cool and slick by comparison, a pared-back, refined take on abstraction with repetitive grids, geometry and restricted color. The Photorealist movement emerged in a middle ground somewhere between these two strands, sharing the appropriation of popular culture with Pop Art, and the clean, methodical rationality of Minimalism. In contrast with Pop Art’s cheeky fun, Photorealist artists observed banal subjects with a wry, deadpan irony that was devoid of human emotion: a prime contrast can be seen between Andy Warhol’s iconic Pop motif of Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962 and John Salt’s photorealist observations of a hardware shop window in Ironmongers, 1981. Photorealism also clashed with Minimalism by rendering elements of narrative or realist content as opposed to their pure, clean language of reductive simplicity.


Leading Artists

’64 Chrysler by Robert Bechtle, 1971, via Christie’s


Throughout the early 1970s, Photorealism gathered pace and became a huge phenomenon across North America. Leaders in the new style included the Californian artists Robert Bechtle, Ralph Goings, and Richard Mclean and in New York the painters Chuck Close, Audrey Flack, and Tom Blackwell. Rather than a unified group, each artist worked independently, approaching a photoreal style within their own conceptual framework. Robert Bechtle painted scenes which he called “the essence of the American experience,” mirroring the visual iconography of advertising with ordinary suburban scenes of families and their reliable motorcars as the ultimate symbol of capitalist luxury. However, his focus on the flat, glossy veneer is a little too perfect, suggesting darkness lurks behind this superficial facade. Richard Mclean also produced an idealized vision of American life, but he featured equestrian or bovine subjects instead of the suburban sprawl, documenting smart riders, animal handlers, and glossy horses in blazing sunshine as the true emblem of the American dream.


Medallion by Richard Mclean, 1974, via Guggenheim Museum, New York


A Movement Is Born


Various names were initially thrown at this motley crew of burgeoning young artists, including New Realism, Super-Realism and Hyper-Realism, but it was the New York gallerist Louis K Meisel who first coined the term ‘Photorealism’ in the catalogue for the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Twenty-Two Realists, 1970. Following on the success of this show, Meisel subsequently reinvented himself as a one-man cheerleader for Photorealism in the 1970s, dedicating his own SoHo gallery to the promotion of photorealist artworks, as well as publishing a strict five-point guide describing in accurate detail what a photorealist artwork ought to look like. Another landmark moment for the Photorealist movement came in 1972 when Swiss curator Harald Szeemann directed the entire Documenta 5 in Germany as a showcase for the photorealist style titled Questioning Reality – Pictorial Worlds Today, featuring the work of a whopping 220 artists working with photographic styles of painting.


How Did They Do It?

Big Self-Portrait by Chuck Close, 1967-68, via the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis


Photorealist artists explored a range of inventive and sometimes ingenious tricks to achieve such impressively accurate results. New York painter Chuck Close made huge, minutely detailed portraits of himself and his friends by combining several revolutionary techniques. The first was to apply a grid to a polaroid image to break it down into a series of small components, then paint each tiny part at a time to stop him from being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. He compared this methodical approach with ‘knitting’, as the image is built up methodically row by row. Close also applied elements of paint with an airbrush and scraped into it with razor blades to achieve finer areas of definition and even attached an eraser to an electric drill to really work in those softer areas of tone. Astonishingly, he claims his iconic 7-by-9-foot Big Self Portrait, 1967-68 was made with only a teaspoon of black acrylic paint. 


World War II (Vanitas) by Audrey Flack, 1977, via Christie’s


By contrast, fellow New York artist Audrey Flack would project her own photographic images onto a canvas as a guide for painting; the first of her works to be made in this way was Farb Family Portrait, 1970. Working with projection allowed her to achieve a dazzling level of accuracy that would not have been possible by hand alone. Flack would then apply thin layers of paint to her canvases with an airbrush, thereby removing all traces of her hand in the final result. In contrast with the detached styles of her contemporaries, Flack’s paintings were often invested with deeper emotional content, particularly her still life studies which echoed the memento mori tradition with carefully placed objects symbolizing the brevity of life such as skulls and burning candles, as seen in works such as World War II (Vanitas), 1977.



Man on a Bench by Duane Hanson, 1977, via Christie’s


In the wake of the Photorealist movement, a new, inflated version of the style emerged throughout the later 1970s which came to be known as Hyper-realism. In contrast with the general mechanical, detached eye of photorealist subjects, Hyper-realism focussed on deliberately emotive subjects, while heightening the sense of awe and magnitude of their subjects with huge scales, extreme lighting or hints at narrative content. Independent curator, writer, and speaker Barbara Maria Stafford described the style for Tate Gallery’s magazine Tate Papers as “something which is artificially intensified, and forced to become more real than it was when it existed in the real world.”


Sculpture was a particularly important strand of Hyper-real art, particularly the fiberglass body casts of American sculptors Duane Hanson and John de Andrea, which place unbelievably lifelike figures into poses or scenarios that hint at untold stories beneath the surface. Contemporary Australian sculptor Ron Mueck has taken these ideas to the extreme in recent years, producing surreal figurative emblems that speak of the complexity in the human condition with shifted scales aimed at amplifying their emotional impact. His enormous new-born baby in A Girl, 2006, is over 5 meters long, capturing with theatrical drama the miraculous wonder of bringing a child into the world.


A Girl by Ron Mueck, 2006, via the National Gallery of Melbourne, Australia and The Atlantic


Recent Ideas In Photorealism

Loopy by Jeff Koons, 1999, via the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao


Photorealism reached its zenith in the 1970s, but since then variations of the style have persisted throughout the following decades. After the explosion of information technology in the 1990s, a new wave of artists adopted photoreal ways of working, but many have moved beyond the literalism of the Photorealist art movement by introducing elements of creative digital editing on computer programs. 


Untitled (Ocean) by Vija Celmins, 1977, via the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


In American artist Jeff Koons’ kitsch, Easyfun-Ethereal series, including the work Loopy, 1999, he creates digital collages featuring seductive cut out snippets from magazines and billboard advertisements, which are then scaled up in paint by his team of assistants onto huge, wall-sized canvases. At the other end of the spectrum American artist Vija Celmins makes tiny, exquisitely observed drawings and prints on paper in black and white, conveying the vast expanses of the ocean or the star-filled night sky with tiny, repetitive marks and smudges that only just reveal the traces of their making. 


Shallow Deaths by Glenn Brown, 2000, via The Gagosian Gallery, London


British painter Glenn Brown takes another approach altogether; building on the surreal language of Hyper-realism he makes photoreal copies of famous expressionist artworks that glow with an aura of unnatural light as if being viewed on a computer screen. Brown’s complex process of copying in paint a photograph of another artist’s artwork reveals just how closely intertwined our experiences of seeing and making paintings is with the digital experience today.


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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.