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.