Photorealism: A Brief History

Taken at face value, the term ‘photorealism’ probably seems pretty self explanatory; these are paintings and other works of art, which reproduce images as realistically as a photograph could be expected to. However, scratch beneath the surface a little and you’ll find that the photorealism movement was actually about a lot more than simply producing works which reflected reality; in fact, the use of incredibly realistic images has actually allowed artists to play with ideas of fact and fiction in ways which can’t be achieved through other styles.

Read on, for a brief history of one of the most fascinating art movements…

The photorealism movement emerged out of Pop Art, and looking at some of the works of the genre – especially those from artists like Ralph Goings – it is hardly difficult to see Pop Art’s influence still at work; bright colours and scenes from everyday life often mean that these paintings speak of mass culture as much as they do of high culture.

The initial photorealism movement happened predominantly in America in the 1970s, and as such the paintings from that era capture a slice of American history as seen first through the camera lens and then through the eyes of the individual artist.

These days, of course, the movement has expanded enormously – and artists who may not even identify as photorealists use the style in their work. This means that they have come to represent much more than just America. Take a look at Terry Watts’ ‘Driving in Rain (M11 in Cambridgeshire)’, pictured above, for an example of a painting which captures a quintessentially British scene, the sunlight only just breaking through the rain as the road recedes into the distance.

The technique of photorealism allows artists to mix the real scenes that they use as their base images with their own creative twists, meaning that it can be an exceptionally good style for those who want to make a commentary on the blend of reality and unreality in contemporary life. As such, many artists have focussed on themes of industrial equipment and manufacturing in their works, demonstrating the machines which help to create the modern world.

Returning to the work of Terry Watts, the painting ‘Wire across the field (West Lulworth, Dorset, nr Durdle Door)’ offers a perfect example of this type of work, fresh green fields struck through with telegraph poles and wires.

As an art movement, photorealism has allowed artists to examine the nature of art itself as a medium which reproduces real life, whilst simultaneously creating incredibly aesthetically pleasing pieces. And, as it can be applied to everything from portraits to British landscape paintings, it remains as fresh today as when it was first created.



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