Where Paintings and Photographs Meet
PHOTOREALISM SINCE 1980 By Louis K. Meisel Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 368 pp., $95
RICHARD ESTES, perhaps the best-known Photorealist painter, was once asked if he intended his work to make people "see things differently, [by] making the subject beautiful or interesting." This question was probably prompted by the fact that his paintings were often of undistinguished urban scenes - storefronts, signs, doorways, trash cans, streetlamps, air-conditioning units sticking out of windows - all the etcetera normally overlooked in cities. Estes's reply was: "I have no intention of making peopl e see differently. I don't enjoy looking at the things I paint, so why should you enjoy it? ... I think I would tear down most of the places I paint."
It is about as hard to tell if there was irony in Estes's remark as it is to be sure there is no irony in his meticulously rendered, exhaustively patient, minutely detailed pictures. But if there is irony in them, it isn't overt. The same is true of any subjective feelings the artist may have about his subject or his painting of it: Impassivity rules.
Photorealism, broadly speaking, is the work of painters closely copying photographs (both slides and prints). There is something inherently ironic about the whole affair of handcrafting - with a kind of obsessive determination, section by section over a long period of time - paintings that rely so much on photographic images caught in a mere moment. It is the evidence of so much patient labor, finally, that strikes - and baffles - the viewer of many Photorealist paintings: Photography is so much quicker.
As Estes put it: "The great thing about the photograph is that you can stop things - this one instant." But the photograph by itself is not enough. Estes paints his images because he finds that photographs have certain limitations. He arrived at the idea of Photorealist painting, he has said, "more through photography than painting," but "I couldn't really carry it far enough with photography, make an object of it, shall we say. You have a little slide, and that's not quite right. Slides are much nicer t han prints, but it's just simply impossible to look at slides."
Both prints and slides, he concluded, lack something that a painting has. He called it surface. It is also true that a painting is more permanent than a photograph is likely to be. We can today admire the vital freshness of some early 15th-century realist paintings. But will people still be able to see the color photographs of our time five centuries hence?
There is a certain irony in the close relationship set up deliberately by the Photorealists between photography and painting. In the history of art since photography was invented, photography has sometimes been used by painters as an aid to memory, sometimes as a way of bringing ready-made imagery into collage or printmaking. But not until Photorealism began in the late 1960s was it used as an absolutely integral tool in the making of good-old-fashioned oil paintings (except, that is, by rank amateurs). Until then there had always been an underlying suspicion of the photograph - as the mechanical image of a one-eyed machine.
The photograph was also a powerful factor in the shift of painting away from representation and the imitation of surface reality. This was based on the premise that if photography could so easily perform the imitative functions traditionally expected of painters, then painters were now set free to take painting into areas of expression and abstraction not accessible to the camera.
So if there wasn't downright enmity between camera and paint brush, there were essential differences. Most artists would have assumed that painting was capable of higher and greater things than was photography.
The Photorealists - painters as they are - still perceive essential differences between the two mediums, even when they apparently are striving for nearly the same effects. Perhaps that is one of the Photorealists' central investigations (since the character of their kind of painting is very like "investigation.") It is as if, in exploring the very nature of photography's apparently authentic realism by copying it closely in oil paint on canvas (as well as acrylic or watercolor), they might discover both
the capabilities and limitations of photography and painting.
Estes pointed out that the painter has control over his painting in many ways a photographer cannot have over his photograph. "In a painting you can make this line a little stronger, change the depth, things like that." Estes and most of the other Photorealists do not slavishly copy their photographic originals - though they come closer to this than anyone has ever done before.
The art dealer and apologist for Photorealism, Louis K. Meisel, writes: "Almost all of them [the Photorealists] alter the photo in some way while making the painting." Some of them, he says, "project a slide, but others grid, and still others simply refer to the photo." This is in his new book on the subject, "Photorealism Since 1980" - Volume 2 in his promised three-volume documentation of the rather exclusive group of actually quite diverse painters.
For the Photorealists, the photograph replaces the traditional sketch or study on the spot. In its instantaneous recording of an image, it captures and freezes a remarkable amount of visual information to which the painter, in the undisturbed calm of the studio, now has access.
Several of these artists have pointed out how impossible it would be for them to have painted their transient subjects by setting up an easel in the street. It might be more accurate to say that they couldn't achieve their meticulous degree of verism except by painting from photographs and by making painting look like photography.
In the process they have instilled realist painting, which has a far-longer history than the abstract art it reacts against, with a new kind of verism the quality and specific character of which belongs to the color photograph.
In copying a photographic image, the painter no longer relies on traditional techniques such as the system of linear perspective or the notion that distance can be made more real by the atmospheric perspective that renders closer objects "warmer" and distant objects "cooler" or less distinct. A photograph will often present crisp focus of minute distant details as well as large close-up ones and no difference at all of tone or color between close and faraway objects.
Again, the darkest shadows in a photograph are often virtually a deep void, an empty blankness. This black space, representing shadow, is quite different from the kind of painting technique that gives to a dark shadow a contained warmth and painterly substance to bring it to life. Similarly, the oil-painting technique of placing a highlight on the canvas with a touch of thick impasto paint, thus catching more light, is completely foreign to the sort of highlights found in Photorealist paintings, which ar e as flat as a photograph.
It is as if these painters have chosen to relearn realism from photography, instead of ignoring the photo image as a debased or irrelevant cliche. The catch in this, as some critics of Photorealism have found, is that the resulting paintings can be so close to color photographs that they also seem debased and irrelevant cliches.
Mr. Meisel, in the introduction to his book, lambasts such critics, questioning the motives behind their dislike of Photorealism. There is a slight sense of paranoia about his criticism of the critics. At the same time, he acknowledges a growing recognition of this almost exclusively American group of artists, to which he has himself contributed much. His claim that Photorealism is both populist and of the highest aesthetic quality, while it may be true, is argued on the grounds of something manifestly u ntrue: That "the public has always demanded quality, and always will." The mass public, in the history of taste, has done no such thing.
Such an unrealistic argument casts further doubt on Meisel's denial of the claim that the Photorealists' subject matter is often "banal." What could be more banal than a snapshot of Barcelona from Gaudi's Cathedral? Or a flashy yellow Porsche? Or marbles? Or a tomato ketchup bottle? Such things are banality itself and link Photorealism's origins to Pop Art rather conclusively. Various degrees of the commonplace - from the tourist snapshot to the documentary photograph of the enthusiast or nostalgist for old movie theaters or diners, to the peeping-tom-through-the-keyhole erotic to the deliberately, outrageously kitsch - show up in the pages of Meisel's handsome tome as the subject matter of the Photorealists. Banal, all right.
On the other hand, what is wrong with investigating and even rejuvenating the taken-for-granted? Art has always done this, particularly realist art with its intense delight in depicting absolutely anything at all in the world around us. And in these artists' unusual fascination for complex reflections and shadows, transparencies and translucencies, light of all kinds from urban street illuminations at night to noon sunlight, they have unquestionably extended the vocabulary of realist painting.
The fact is that, for all their apparently impassive realism and lack of personal or stylistic intervention between the subject and its presentation in paint, many of the Photorealists' works, whatever Estes says, do strongly and surprisingly affect the way the viewers see the world around them.