Why is Photorealism Hugely Popular?


Richard Estes, Paris Street Scene

One of the things I’ve noticed lately is the immense popularity of photorealistic works online. I believe this is related to how photorealism conjures up the “real” while simultaneously negating it due to the materials involved; ie, this is a drawing or a painting, it can’t be real. Apart from the technical virtuosity of many of these works, there is an enigma at play beneath the surface; and there is something about the works that mesmerizes us.

Escape into Life receives surges of traffic around photorealist artists such as Richard Estes, Dirk Dzimirsky, Denis Ichitovkin, Don Gore, Eric Zener, and Alyssa Monks. Another arts blog by Alice at My Modern Met covers photorealistic and hyper-realistic art frequently. Some of Alice’s most popular entries include, “Hyper-Realistic Acrylic Body Painting,” “21 Mindblowing Hyperreal Paintings,” and “Photorealistic Pencil Drawings by Paul Lung.”

When we look at these works, we see some similarities in technique and method. For example, images of water are common in hyperrealistic paintings and drawings. Eric Zener chooses solely to focus on pools and individuals diving into or suspended underwater. In an interview I had with Zener last year, he described his method:

I take photos of models in the water and then use them as a reference to make my drawing. Usually a lot changes but it gives me a good starting point. Then I paint an underpainting in grey/blue scale. After that I paint from the farthest point back to the foreground.

Eric Zener, Between Two Places

Many of the paintings by Alyssa Monks are situated in bathrooms or behind shower doors. We are presented with a human face behind glass, steam clouding the glass, and drops of water blurring the picture. This play of barriers against the direct human image heightens the drama of the “real”–we see the human figure, but we cannot directly approach/access it.

Alyssa Monks, Away

Another example is Dirk Dzimirsky’s Drawn Face VI (below). Here we are drawn to the frenzied motion of water, the splatter of drops and the trajectories down and off the man’s face. The water is so pronounced that it seems to take on another form, like transparent oil. The heaviness of the liquid reinforces its impact. Just as the drawing enhances the qualities of water, the image heightens the reality of being drenched, producing a simulacrum of experience and sensation.

Dirk Dzimirsky, Drawn Face VI (detail)

Another technique used in photorealistic works is reflection. Like water, reflection deflects the “real,” fragments the “real,” complicates the “real,” and thus heightens it. Richard Estes is a contemporary master of this technique, often using reflections from city buildings and the play of sunlight on various types of glass, to create a multidimensional effect. In The L Train (below), we are presented with a dead-on view through multiple layers of glass. The reflections from each panel create distorted, but corresponding images in different quadrants of the painting, while the numerous steel bars at various angles further break up the picture we are looking at.

Richard Estes, The L Train

If the Photorealism heralded decades ago by Chuck Close, Ralph Goings, Richard Estes, and Audrey Flack was a reaction against Surrealism and Pop Art, then these artists seem to have presaged our contemporary moment. The popularity of photorealistic works right now says something about our needs and desires as humans in the 21 century.

Consider the introductory paragraph in David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto:

My intent is to write an ars poetic for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconsciously connected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger chunks of “reality” into their work.

While photorealism in art has been around since the late 1960’s, there is a curious resurgence of interest around these paintings and I wonder if it is connected to Shields’s thesis. He goes on to describe the “hunger” contemporary culture has for “the lure and blur of the real.”

Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all fabrication.

In a convincing argument made up entirely of quotations and passages, many of them not even the author’s own, Reality Hunger uses examples such as the popularity of reality TV shows, the ascendancy of the memoir, and sampling in hip hop to show our lust for reality-based art. Most of us would agree that reality TV is not art, but it reflects a trend in culture where we are more attracted to the “real” than the blatantly fictitious.

Photorealistic works can thus seem to cast an enchanting spell upon our reality-hungered lives. They are like drugs, providing the greatest visual impact, giving us the thrill of the “illusion of reality.” Shields writes:

The body gets used to a drug and needs a stronger dose in order to experience the thrill. An illusion of reality–the idea that something really happened–is providing us with that thrill right now. We’re riveted by the (seeming) rawness of something that appears to be direct from the source, or at least less worked over than a polished mass-media production.

lethebashar-4I’m the editor of Escape into Life, online arts journal. I’m also involved in working with an illustrator from Argentina on a graphic novel. Besides that I frequently keep up my essay-blog, The Blog of Innocence, which covers topics in the arts, social technology, and a general philosophy of life.




  • stephenpain

    One of the reasons behind the popularity of photorealism is that it seduces the two primary classes of viewers – those (a vast majority) who want their art to be like a “photograph” which accounted for the great popularity of “real” Dutch interiors and still lifes, and the French academic paintings of nudes and historical events painted in detail.
    and the other class who like their art to be aware of itself rather than its content, i.e. anti-mimetic. Perhaps because it subverts both sets of expectations and in some ways cheekily – it attracts a third class of viewer those who view it as a kitsch joke. They may see themselves as the 21st century cognescenti.

  • Cap

    Great article!

  • syrimne1

    I don't know, I keep thinking there's something we're missing here, about this phenomenon. I wonder if it's an ungroundedness in the human psyche that's causing elements of this fascination, coupled with hyper-consumerism that is all about fragmentation and the creation of false identities/realities…mixed with an increasing fear of real, unfiltered experience. The people, articles and cultural pockets I've encountered that are most obsessed with the “real” are those also most likely to blur the lines between real and unreal…not only not acknowledging the staging of this form of “real” but also not seeing the ways in which they construct stories to comprehend their own realities…stories that often (heavily) distort any semblance of objectivity on their experience. Put in more simple language – their lives take on a movie-like quality, far moreso than more traditional fiction. So does the “real” fiction they claim to crave, which often uses “reality” as a jump-off point to design a story arc that only exists in the mind of the creator and its consumer.

    I wonder if people are getting so disconnected from experience-based perception that they seek the gratification that comes from it even as they are at the same moment repelled by (and frightened by) reality that is too confrontational. If so, it seems to be creating a kind of push/pull that lives in a netherworld of disconnection, and therefore contains an inherently bottomless hunger for more of the same.

    Just thinking about this, because there's something about this phenomenon that comes off as inherently disingenuous to me, in terms of what it claims it's after…(i.e., “reality”).

  • Exactly true, when you say:

    “The people, articles and cultural pockets I've encountered that are most obsessed with the “real” are those also most likely to blur the lines between real and unreal”

    I actually responded this way to Mark on his blog, in an essay he wrote in response to this one. I said:

    You write, “I would argue that, far from desiring the “reality” suggested by a painting like this, viewers desire the illusion.”

    I would respond to that by saying, viewers still desire the reality, just as I desire real happiness in my life, not the illusion of happiness. However, what we end up getting is the illusion of happiness, as viewers end up taking the illusion, taking the virtual, instead of the real. We mix the two up, and become satisfied, but never completely, with the illusion.

  • syrimne1

    Totally agree! I think it creates a lot of hungry people, eating sawdust, as it were…and wondering why it doesn't satisfy them for long. But that's more in relation to how it translates into the story of their lives, and less with photorealism in the arts I think, which is a related phenomenon but also has elements of the fascination of “near to” real – as in the “uncanny valley” phenomenon ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley )

    I'll look for your original response though – sounds fascinating!

  • There is something about photorealism that really pulls at me. Maybe how artists can make something look so real in the first place. Reflections and glass for-instance is truly amazing.

  • Photorealism

    As a photorealism artist representer and gallery, I must say that I truly admire this style of art. Its major contributors like Doug Bloodworth, Mark Schiff, and others have made this form of expression a true pleasure.

    http://www.photorealism.com

  • Greg

    I am a collector of photo realism and I have created an art page on Pinterest; with most of the pieces I love in this genre. https://www.pinterest.com/gregory8363/art/