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Why I object to the term “photorealism”

By January 9, 2017Uncategorized

If a painting is said to be realistic it’s usually said to be “photorealistic” and this is meant to be a compliment. While I think realism is a valid description of style, photorealism is something else to me completely. The first problem is that “photorealism” assumes that images from a camera are realistic, but cameras hardly ever capture reality as our eyes see it. They crop and they flatten, but more than that, the product of cameras are easily manipulated by the effects of light, filters, lenses, shutter speeds, film or digital processing, movement, focus, depth of field, color, etc. If you can see it, a camera can change it. Even the most “simple” thing can be very complicated with a camera. Ask any artist to tell you how difficult it is to photograph a drawing on white paper and have that white paper look white, or a shoot a glossy varnished painting for their portfolio. Your eyes might not see a glare, but without polarized lenses, the camera is blinded by it. Paint colors can also give you instant proof that the accuracy of photographs are awry. Take a picture of a painted wall, then either print the photograph you just took, or hold up the screen to the original. Is it an exact match? I’m going to bet the answer to both the screen and the printed color is “no.” Try doing the same experiment with your skin: take a photograph of your arm, then compare that photograph to the same place on your arm. See a difference in color?

Myths of Photography:

  • Cameras accurately capture light and color
  • Cameras accurately represent shapes and angles
  • Cameras are more true, because they captured an instant just the way it was.
  • Cameras replaced the technical work of painting because they accurately reproduce an image. This caused painters to choose between throwing away skillful representation from life – the technical craft of image making – or try to copy the new master: the photograph.


First, this idea of the camera’s accuracy with light and color is a myth. This myth is desperately perpetuated by the paint companies. I promise you, this screen shot of a photograph of a paint chip on another screen is NOT going to be true to life:


Second, shapes and angles aren’t trustable either. Do you trust these real-estate photographs to be accurate and real? The walls aren’t even square! How big is that room, really?

This un-square apartment is listed at $1,000 a month. Welcome to Seattle.



How about the angles in this urban scene. Is this realism?


And these two portraits taken with different lenses? If your painting looks like the one on the left, is it photorealistic? If it is photorealistic, is it good?


What is realism? Is this double exposure photograph portrait of me by James Arzente more realistic than a painted portrait?

What is the goal of painting? Should a painting be judged as higher in craftsmanship if it can be compared to, or even mistaken for, a photograph?


Paintings made from photographic references tend to look different than paintings made from life. There are exceptions, of course, but often paintings from photographs have a little bit removed. They can tend to be a flat, stiff, limited – even warped. Is your goal to make a painting that looks like a photograph? Is that a goal because you are able to look at, and to know with certainty and undoubtable truth when you’ve achieved your goal? Because you can say it is accurate? Accurate to what?


Here are a few more unrealistic photographs, these by Man Ray:

Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway

You get my point? Good. So can we please stop using the term “photorealistic” to compliment paintings that look like stuff? Geeze. Now that I’ve beaten that notion to death, please feel free to call photographs “painterly,” because they can be, and it’s a compliment to both the photograph, and to the paintings. Check out my previous post about Stuart Shils’ painterly “Window Collages” and the photographic work by David Hockney (above).

An almost exception to anti-photorealism I’m willing to make today is the work by Y.Z. Kami. The visual references for his paintings are obviously photographs, but they’re painterly photographs, and then he painted them, so his work is painterly-photo-realistic-paintings. (?!?)

Y.Z. Kami (detail)


Below are two beautiful and painterly photographs by James Arzente:

Bonus round:

This is the earliest surviving camera photograph, 1826 or 1827, known as View from the Window at Le GrasPainterly, no?

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