Photography and Photorealism, two flourishing art movements that share a rich history and continue to influence one another today.
With its roots in Ancient Greece, "the Camera Obscura," independently described by mathematicians Aristotle and Euclid in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, a darkened room with a small hole or lens at one side through which an image is projected onto a wall or object, was the first inception of a camera as we know it today. Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham then developed this concept, inventing the first true Pinhole Camera in the 9th or 10th century. Its clear projecting and capturing images is something we have always sought and the camera is something that has influenced art since the Renaissance, where artists used the camera obscura to project an inverted image directly onto the canvas.
Fast forward to 1839 and we can not only project images but fix them to paper using the Daguerreotype process. Several improvements and inventions later photography is cheap and widely accessible. Fine art photography grew to become accepted by the western art world and galleries; mostly due to the work of photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.
Photography's long history runs parallel to and is intertwined with art of all other media. This did not stop as it reached the status of artistic medium itself, as photography's accessibility increased so did it’s influence and use in other artistic disciplines giving way to new uses as an artistic aid.
Photorealism, the term refers to two things, realistic reproductions of images in other media and an American art movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The movement evolved from Pop Art, countering the emerging movement of abstract expressionism. The term coined by Louis K. Meisel is also labeled as Super-Realism, New Realism, Sharp Focus Realism, or Hyper-Realism.
Louis K Meisel stated that the invention of photography in the 1800s had three effects on art: Portrait and scenic artists were deemed inferior and many reapplied their knowledge of light and composition to the new medium becoming photographers; artists used the photograph as source material aiding their work, however they went to great lengths to hide this, not wanting their work to be seen as derivative; lastly, the photograph opened up new areas of experimentation for artists.
Due to photography becoming the leading means of capturing and reproducing reality, abstraction became the focus of the art world. Photorealism is a push back against this, an attempt to reclaim and re-elevate the value of ‘image’. So like the masters of the renaissance, artists were again using the camera as a tool for painting.
Why go to such trouble to paint a realistic picture when you can just photograph the scene?
In short, because you can. Many of us forget that part of the artistic pursuit is the artist themselves exercising their skill, and what more of a clear and eloquent way of displaying your prowess as a painter than painting something as true to life as possible. Art is about capturing reality, the artist’s reality and imbuing it with their emotions or message.
Couldn’t anyone have taken that photo?
There’s a lot more to photography than point and click. The widespread accessible use of cameras, from holiday disposables to Iphones has created a lack of respect for the painstaking and carefully crafted skill of the photographer. It is said ‘a photograph is the easiest thing to make, but the hardest thing to make well’. Developing a sense for what French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described as ‘the decisive moment’ is a difficult and complex journey. Not to mention technological knowledge of cameras and film development, exhaustive control or purposeful lack of control of their subjects and scenes.
The disciplines together
Photography and photorealism are far from being new movements or mediums, however their shared history means they continue to influence each other. Artists painting photorealistic works mimic the glassy stillness of photography and photographers use a whole range of pre and post shot techniques to create the sense of dynamic visual poetry we get from paintings.
Conrad Bartelski’s ‘monument’ is one such work, from the shimmering reflections on the lake, to the misty peaks of a towering mountain range, Bartelski evokes the brooding wistful landscapes of Turner whilst leveraging the beauty of his media in ghostly black and white.
Inversely, SJ Fuerst, known for their surreal-hyperrealism Fuerst depicts familiar items in an unfamiliar way inviting questions and investigation from the viewer, in ‘Siberian Tyger’ we see an inflatable tiger set against a flat sheet backdrop depicting a Siberian habitat. The artist goes as far as to mimic the perspective of a photographic studio, it takes the viewer a split second to realise the painting is a painting and the tiger is an inflatable.