Understanding the photorealism movement and its pioneers

Erupting in the 60’s, but in the making long before. The founding members of the movement are numerous as are their myriad artworks and inspirations that cemented Photorealism as an artistic genre. Below, we outline a few of our favorites.   

What is Photorealism?

The textbook definition of Photorealism is ‘a genre of art that encompasses painting, drawing and other graphic media, in which an artist studies a photograph and then attempts to reproduce the image as realistically as possible in another medium.’

The movement evolved from Pop Art in the late 60s and early 70s. A counterpart to Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. It looked to both history and the future at the same time. The reclamation of painting scenes true to life, presenting the most realistic depiction of reality as possible, leaning on realism at a time when the art world was awash with abstraction. However the acceptance of the camera and photograph as a tool is indicative of an acceptance of modernism. Photorealism wasn’t a reactionary regression in the face of expressionism but a modern continuation of a vein of art as old as time; accurate visual representation of reality.

Erupting in the 60’s, but in the making long before. The founding members of the movement are numerous as are their myriad artworks and inspirations that cemented Photorealism as an artistic genre. Below, we outline a few of our favorites.   

Richard Estes

Born in 1932 in Kewanee, Illinois, Richard Estes moved to Chicago at a young age and studied fine art at the The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here he was impacted by the work of realists like Edward Hopper and Edgar Degas present in the institute's collections. Estes uses several images of the scene he’s painting creating an aesthetic composition and broadening the frame of the work. His paintings, often devoid of famous monuments, litter and snow, are full of repetition, repetition created by perspective or reflections in train and shop windows or shiny car bonnets. Paintings like ‘L train’ display the complex almost geometric patterns Estes creates through perspective and reflection. 

Chuck Close

Born in 1940 in Washington state, Chuck Close is famous for large scale portraits, using a grid on the canvas and copying the photograph cell by cell. Some portraits such as ‘Big Self-Portrait’ are so finely done that even in a full page reproduction in an art book, they can’t be distinguished from photographs. In 1988 Close suffered from a seizure leaving him partially paralized, thus changing his method and final product. Close expanded the size of cells in the grids he used and leaned into a more topographic looking style, as seen in ‘Agnes’ - a portrait of the pioneering abstract expressionist Agnes Martin.

Ralph Goings

Born in 1928 in California to a working class family, Ralph Goings grew up during the great depression. Exposed to art in highschool, inspired by Rembrandt and encouraged by his auntie, Goings would paint using old canvas and materials from his local hardware store. After serving in the military and enrolling in college he was encouraged to attend an art school by Leon Amyx, head of art at the college. Goings did just that and received his MFA in painting from Sacramento State College in 1965. 

Goings’ work focuses on everyday Californian life and would go on to define the Photorealist movement, often depicting diners, burger stands, pick-up trucks and banks. He was disappointed with the quality of imagery in Pop Art at the time and felt that if attempting to represent an object why not make it as close to a photograph as possible. “Some people were upset by what I was doing and said 'it's not art, it can't possibly be art'. That gave me encouragement in a perverse way, because I was delighted to be doing something that was really upsetting people... I was having a hell of a lot of fun...". 

Audrey Flack

Born in 1931 in New York, Audrey Flack’s work encompasses painting, sculpture and photography. A pioneer of the Photorealist movement and is said to be one of the first modern artists to use a photograph projected directly onto canvas as an aid. Flack’s paintings are hyper real and Kitsch; the arranged scenes seem to burn with an effervescence of colour, they’re realer than real. 

Flack decided in the early 1980s that she had taken Photorealism as far as she could and yearned for something more tangible and for ‘Something to hold and to hold on to.’ The motifs in Flack’s sculpture focus more on religion and mythology than the everyday and contemporary influences of her photorealist work.


These Photorealism pioneers started a movement that is still just as popular today, with modern day artists continuing the tradition. Containing astounding attention to detail, leaving us to wonder if the paintings aren’t just photographs afterall. If you’d like to read about the shared history of Photography and Photorealism then read our blog. 

Here at Hancock Gallery we pride ourselves in representing incredible examples of photorealism. Explore works by leading contemporary photorealists Stephen Johnston and SJ Fuerst online or visit our gallery for a more intimate experience with the work.

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