The Allure of Photorealism: A Philosophical Musing
In April 2010, Escape into Life founder Chris Al-Aswad did a feature on the immense popularity of photorealistic paintings on the internet. He poses the question of why the style has enjoyed long-lasting popularity since its emergence in the 60’s and 70’s as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, with a recent resurgence online. Crediting our fascination with Photorealism to the enigma of reality juxtaposed with the reveal of the fiction, Chris walks us through characteristics of today’s most captivating photorealistic paintings. Almost exactly a year later, the Photorealism movement continues to stake its claim in modern art.
The question remains, what has led so many contemporary artists, art critiques, and art-lovers to prize Photorealism so highly in this decade? And why especially on the internet? Naturally, as Chris mentioned in his feature, part of the answer lies in the long-standing Western fascination with convincing illusion. As Harold Osborne points out in his 1968 book Aesthetics and Art Theory, the naturalistic approach to art appears in Greece in the sixth century B.C. And striving for naturalism influenced the direction of Western art to the point that for centuries Western art criticism consisted mostly in descriptions of the physical content of the work rather than artistic technique or style of brushstrokes. In fact, the work was meant to be mistaken for the objects or people contained within it. This may have been an exception in terms of artistic styles across the globe, but the dominance of the Western tradition has ensured that naturalism holds a firm place in the conscious and unconscious artistic judgments of many an audience.
However, Photorealism, like Impressionism, also owes its development to the invention of the camera. The very same technology that inspired artists to experiment with loose brushwork and abstraction like never before also inspired stylistic imitations of its own decades later. Photorealism may be realistic verging on hyper-realistic, often being so sharply-focused that it highlights detail beyond the abilities of most cameras. Even so, the main goal of Photorealism is not necessarily to portray a reality so convincingly 3-dimensional that one could step right into the painting. The goal is to mimic the somewhat flattened, sharply highlighted realism of an image captured by a camera, whether or not a camera was originally involved in the recording of the image.
Another clue to Photorealism’s popularity is a purely practical matter. Most, if not all, first impressions of art submitted for contests or posted on the internet will be based on how good the piece looks in a photograph, and what could possibly turn on better than a piece meant to look like a photograph in the first place? Moreover, the level of detail in a typical Photorealistic work will ensure that digital images will look fairly crisp, even at lower resolutions. We are accustomed to the glowing photographs of the internet, the glossy pages in magazines, and the bombardment of highly calculated yet so-natural-looking images on television—Photorealism may simply seem like an old friend with the added wonder that someone did every bit of the work by hand.
Yet another practical reason deals with the question of establishing objective standards for “good” art. Reducing the criteria to how convincingly a painting reproduces a photographic feel and how closely-rendered each object is simplifies and objectifies the process of judging art. Without balance and education, unfortunately, this train of thought can lead to the perpetuation of the notion that less externally “realistic” works are somehow inferior to other “-isms” and styles, which undermines the limitless possibilities for communication, expression, and enlightenment offered by the arts.
Even so, Photorealism can be particularly well-suited to certain modern niches. For instance, in fantasy and video game art, Photorealism can give a sense of credibility to even the most outlandish creatures and far-off places, almost serving as a sort of “photographic evidence.” A larger than life painting of a swimmer on a bright day can give a splash of warmth and color to a cold office in an ultra-modern high-rise.
Even a humble, slice-of-life scene in a Photorealistic style can capture a moment or light that a camera might have missed or botched beyond the scope of the tools of Photoshop. And it can do so in a way both colossal and intimate to the viewer simultaneously. Finally, perhaps most significantly, Photorealism manages to benefit from the West’s love of Naturalism in art with a post modern touch of self-referentiality. That is, by mimicking the style of a photo rather than attempting to create a 3-D illusion of reality, Photorealism simultaneously combines a heightened air of reality with the twist of being a convincing facsimile of a copy, as if to assure us that in some way or another, no reality can escape the lens.
Christina Wegman is a painter, freelance writer, music teacher, and art event coordinator currently residing in Alabama. Since she hosted her first one-woman art show in 2007, many of her paintings have been displayed in the Huntsville Museum of Art for the “Unique Views of Huntsville” juried competition, and her work has been represented by several galleries and organizations. Born in Los Angeles, California, she has traveled widely throughout Europe and studied in both the U.S. and Canada, where she chronicled some of her thoughts on life and culture at Un Portrait De La Vie Moderne: A Culture Blog . Her website Abstract Träumerei.