An extremely detailed form of naturalistic art, often based on photographs. The style is particularly associated with North American art of the 1970s.

John Salt Ironmongers 1981 © John Salt

The Origins of Photorealism

Photorealism emerged alongside Conceptual Art, Pop Art and Minimalism, as part of a general trend that favoured realism over the idealism of abstraction. Photoreal painting became popular in America in the 1970s, particularly in the United States. Prominent photorealists who emerged during this time were Chuck Close, Audrey Flack, Denis Peterson and Malcolm Morley. While they shared many stylistic tendencies, they were not a cohesive group, instead choosing to work independently in various parts of America.

Brooklyn art dealer Louis K Meisel was one of the first to bring together the trend, defining the style as ‘Photorealism’ in 1969. His definition was printed in a publication by the Whitney Museum’s exhibition, Twenty Two Realists in 1970. In 1972 Swiss curator and art historian Harald Szeeman selected a number of photorealists for the Documenta 5, a German-based international art exhibition held every five years. Two-hundred and twenty artists exhibited including the photorealist painters Chuck Close, Malcolm Morley John Salt and Charles Bell.

Key ideas and artworks

While the work of the photorealists could be grouped together, there were artists that explored a variety of techniques and subjects. Comparisons have been made between Pop Art and Photorealism, which emerged out of America around the same time. Both movements were reliant on the circulation of photographic media in popular culture, along with a detached, deadpan approach. Similarly, Photorealism has been closely tied with Minimalism, particularly through the shared sense of order and a clinical method of production that belied any individual traces of the artist’s hand, as opposed to the raw expression in the Abstract Expressionists.

American artist Chuck Close rose as a prominent Photorealist painter, who made his name with huge, billboard-sized paintings of himself and his friends, reproduced from photographs in painstaking detail, seen in the minutely detailed texture of the skin and hair of his subjects. Like many Photorealists, Close would reproduce his photographs using an intricate gridded photograph, allowing him to piece together the image through a machine-like process.

The British born, American based artist Malcolm Morley made photograph-like paintings of kitsch, middle-class subjects such as ocean liners, taken from postcards, snapshots, travel posters and brochures, often leaving a white border as a reminder of the image’s origins. John Salt was one of America’s best-known photorealists, who later moved to the UK. He painted Ironmongers, 1981, copied from a photograph of a shop front in Ludlow, Shropshire by copying the image of a slide projected onto canvas.

In Germany, Gerard Richter emerged as a prominent painter who would often paint in a photorealist style, amongst other painterly techniques. He was particularly drawn to amateur photography with its slightly blurred, painterly effects, which he would reproduce onto canvas carefully, as seen in his Brigit Polk, 1971. Richter has also produced a number of paintings with abstract qualities based on photographs, including Abtraktes Bild (Haut) (Abstract Painting (Skin), 2004. The painting documents sound vibrations on the surface of milk, based on a photograph taken by German artist Carsten Nicolai.

Contemporary Examples

Artists working today continue to explore variations on the Photorealist style, with many questioning ideas about the nature of representation, originality and authorship, while others delve into areas of digital manipulation. Richard Price emerged as a pioneer in Appropriation Art in the 1970s, deliberately copying the work of other photographers. Vija Celmins’ minutely detailed, small-scale drawings are consciously copied from found images, drawing attention to their nature as images of images of life. Alex Dordoy reproduces digitally manipulated, photographic elements within his work, describing his paintings such as Caster 3D, 2012, as ‘photorealist, psychedelic mindscapes’.

Artists

John Salt
born 1937
Gerhard Richter
born 1932
Vija Celmins
born 1938

Glossary terms

  • An art movement of the 1950s to the 1970s that was primarily based in Britain and the United States. Pop artists are so called because of their use of imagery from popular culture. They also introduced techniques and materials from the commercial world, such as screen-printing, to fine art practice.