Ava Benbow discusses photorealism's value as an art form
Why not just take a picture?
The case against photorealism is pretty straightforward. You can make something look like a photograph by just taking a picture. Why should a tremendous amount of work be poured into making a lesser version of a photograph? There’s no art in reproducing a picture, only craft. Training yourself to act like a copier isn’t real art. It’s a feat of technical skill, but there isn’t any life. There isn’t any real purpose or point of view.
The appeal of photorealistic art to consumers has only stirred up more complaints about its legitimacy as an art form. On a base level, photorealism is easier to understand than some more abstracted and conceptual art. It is easy to understand what is being portrayed in photorealistic art and this is construed to mean that it is a simple and surface level art form.
Others take it further and claim that photorealism isn’t even art, that it is more of a clever trick. They argue that replicating photographs is a skill and does not use any creativity. The technique is there, but nothing else of substance. It is seen as sterile. Even paintings with people don’t feel like portraits to us. There is a distance and cold objectivity that lacks the perspective that is so lauded in art.
These critiques have been around since the photorealism art movement took off in the late 1960s. A response to an increasingly abstract and minimalistic art world, photorealism is understood as a descendent of the Pop art movement. Photorealism often plays with scale and subject matter, but with an astounding faithfulness to the minute details of the photograph which can be an extraordinary laborious process.
So, is there anything to be said for a drawing that looks like a photograph? Is there more than what meets the eye in these works of art?
I think that the answer requires more nuance than the criticism. For one thing, using photographs as reference isn’t unique to photorealism. What does set photorealism apart is its openness about using references. There is no attempt to cover up the influence of the reference, photorealism embraces the fact that its aim is accuracy.
And truthfully, there is a difference between a painting and a picture that look identical. Process plays a large part in a lot of art, and photorealism is no exception. The marvel of creating the appearance of reality isn’t something that needs to be downplayed when critiquing photorealistic art. Although process art is typically associated with abstract and impressionist works, I think that it is applicable to photorealistic art. The photorealistic process is complex and fascinating, with videos of creating photorealistic art bringing in millions of views. But can photorealistic art be viewed with depth without knowledge of its process?
Photorealism is understood as an evolution of pop art, but pop art is generally regarded as more conceptual than photorealism. Both heavily use photographic references, but where pop art is regarded as commentary, photorealism is taken to be uninspired.
Photorealism has played a major role in expanding what appropriate subject matter is for art. By placing so much care on to its subject and displaying a quiet sort of reverence for every detail, photorealistic art boldly proclaims that its subject matter is worthy of your attention. By capturing seemingly mundane or common moments, photorealism continues to elevate the ordinary.
The fact of the matter is that a painting will never really be a photograph. Photorealism pushes this boundary, but there are inherent flaws in the work of humans. Striving to make a painting look like something that it’s not doesn’t detract from its value or standing as art. There are objections to the validity of most art movements, and photorealism is a prime example of this. Yes, you could just take a picture. But photorealistic art just isn’t a picture.