Photorealism as an art movement began in the late 1960s. It involved the production of images that deployed near-microscopic detail to achieve the highest degree of representational verisimilitude possible. Artists such as Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Robert Cottingham, John Salt, Davis Cone, John Baeder, John Kacere, and Chuck Close attempted to reproduce what the camera could record and created highly illusionistic images that referred not to nature but to the reproduced image.
Photorealism grew out of Pop and Minimalism movements that preceded it. Abstract Expressionism emerged in the 1940s had completely eliminated imagery. The Pop artists turned to full-blown imagery but they still emphasized flatness. Like Pop artists, the Photo-realists were interested in breaking down hierarchies of appropriate subject matter by including everyday scenes of commercial life- cars, shops, and signage, for example.
Photorealist painters use an industrial or mechanical technique such as photography as the foundation for their work in order to create a detached and impersonal effect also had an affinity of both Pop and Minimalism. Yet many saw Photorealism’s revival of illusionism as a challenge to the pared-down Minimalist aesthetic, and many perceived the movement as an attack on the important gains that had been made by modern abstract paintings. After the abstract expressionists, some artists went in the Minimalist direction or to earthwork, when another group of artists went back to representation, experimenting with different levels of realism. This latter group was the photo realists. Around the same period there were also artists who started working with new expressionism, graffiti paintings, mixed media collage, and some other artists blew up big photographs… the pluralistic art world was revived.
New York gallerist Louis K. Meisel, a proponent of the movement, was among the first to coin the term “photorealism”. Meisel traced the historical roots of photorealism all the way back to the very beginning of the invention of camera. He pointed out that “although the camera was used as a tool by artists since its invention, all along, the artists influenced the photographers, and the photographers the artists. The camera influenced everybody.”
Chuck Close systematically transformed photographs of his friends into giant frontal portraits, initially in black-and-white and then in color beginning in 1970. He first put down a light pencil grid for scaling up the photograph and then sketched in the image with the airbrush; he finished the image by painting in the details. “Pictorial syntax is the same as writing. You develop (your own) vocabulary. “ What Close had in common with the photo realists was that they used photography to gather information that was then transferred to canvas or paper. But the parallels did not go much beyond that. Speaking of his association with the photorealists, Close himself explained: “ I have a lot of admiration, for Cottingham and Bechtle, and Goings, and Estes, and some of the others, but I felt that what they were doing was quite distinct from what I was doing. I didn’t want to be seen as a member of any group. I wanted to be judged as an individual, which is why I eventually signed with a gallery that was known for showing nonrepresentational work.”
Goings does not distant himself from close association with Photorealism style, but he would not care to be pigeon holed as “just” a Photo Realist. Goings prefers to think of himself as a painter who worked through the 1970s. He loves the substance of oil paint and he wants the image to speak for itself. Goings is interested in the light and the effect it has on surfaces, objects and the spaces where the objects exist. He was drawn to the diners in the first place by "all the meal, glass, the vinyl and so forth.”
Cone once said in an interview that with his paintings depicting small town movie theaters, the “Hollywood on Main Street”, he is interested in capturing a part of America that he hopes will be preserved. Cone thinks the movie theaters are quite elegant in their own right. Davis points out that Pop Art is about the media, the styled image. But he believes the photorealists consciously try to maintain a distance from the image. For him trying to keep that spontaneity of photographic images during the usually very long and labor-intensive painting process is very hard, emotionally. ”