Shane Godfrey December 14th, 2008 Art Since 1945 Final Paper A Reinterpretation of Photo Realism

Introduction and Conceptual Framework

Painting realistically has been something that artists have been struggling with since the birth of painting. Artists have been trying to accurately depict a scene, person, or objects to trick the eye to believe a painting to achieve a certain level of “realness” for decades. In the late nineteenth to earth twentieth century, Trompe-l'œil (which literally translates from French to English as “trick the eye”) painters came on the scene. Trompe-l'œil painters used still objects and tricks of light, shadow, and 3dementiality to try to convince the viewer into thinking the painting was real. Their goal was to trick their viewers into thinking their paintings were actually part of the scene it was placed in. (Milman, 1982) In figure 1, Richard LaBarre Goodwin’s Hunting Cabin Door depicts this trickery by giving the flat painting a 3-dementiality through the use of the duck placed on a painted wood door. Ideally, this painting would be placed in the same setting to trick the viewer into think that the objects were really hanging on the wall. Jasper Johns later brought this idea into question in the 1950’s. He took objects in his studio, and recast them with the utmost care, to try to create exact replicas of his painting instruments. In figure 2, Painted Bronze (savarin), the viewer can see the craft put into the recreation of the paint can. It was expertly cast in bronze, expertly painted to look exactly like a paint can would, and then placed in a gallery to question the idea of a paint can and the idea of Trompe-l'œil applying only to paint. From afar, this paint can look like it is real. But once the viewer gets close, the waviness of the text becomes apparent from painting the text onto the can. This begs the

same questions that the Trompe-l'œil painting does, except through use of sculpture. (Which breaks every rule of Trompe-l'œil painting.) (Frankenstein, 1970) In the late 1970’s, after the hegemony of Clement Greenberg and the abstract expressionist painters had finally started to subside, Photorealism hit the art scene. Using snapshots and painting them in a grand scale, they were bringing banal figures back into painting, which had not been done in American art in several decades. Thanks to pop art and minimalism in the 60’s, artists such as Ralph Goings could make paintings such as the one in figure 3, Airstream. This painting is made from a snapshot and then painted in a grand scale of around 5x7 feet. These paintings are made with such craft, that they appear to be straight out of reality, like that of Trompe-l'œil paintings, but they were actually painted with such accuracy that they become hyper real. The photo realist painters of the 70’s were actually predicting what we now have today; hyper real images through the use of high definition images and video. (Arthur, 1980) In this essay I will explore how a photographer, Sam Rosenholtz, is reinterpreting and using a lot of these ideas in his current work made in 2008 through photoshop and a highresolution digital camera. (Jacobs, 2008) Photography Lineage Before talking about Rosenholtz’s images, I would first like to contextualize photography into this lineage of photo realists. In the

contemporary photography art scene, Gregory Crewdson has been making fantastic images of the supernatural for the past two decades. What he does is drives around and scouts out a location somewhere in New England. He then gets an illustrator to draw out what the image that he wants to photograph in his head to look like. Next the lighting director to goes into the scene that was scouted out and gives the scene the proper lighting to make the scene look both cinematic and natural. And finally, Crewdson and his crew go onto the location with a large format 8x10 camera and set up the shot. They then include real actors into the scene and then take about forty sheets of film during twilight hours of the day. After the shoot is over, the pictures are all scanned into a computer and digital put together to achieve ultimate sharpness and commercial sleekness. These pictures appear to be straight out of a movie, but like Cindy Sherman’s photographs of Untitled Film Stills, these are more like Crewdson’s contemporary version of that idea through use of Science Fiction films. These trick the eye to believe that the photographs are straight out of a film or even real life, but in actuality are so digitally manipulated, lit with such precision, and are so sharp, that Crewdson’s photographs have no chance of ever being considered real. (Fletcher, 2008) Sam Rosenholtz re-imagining of photo-realism through photography Referring to figure 4, Sam Rosenholtz’s Untitled, the image appears to be a strange moment caught of white cars driving on the highway at the

same moment. But in actuality it is much different than that. Much like Trompe-l'œil painters, Rosenholtz is hoping to trick his viewer to think many different things. His series of photographs are actually a re-interpretation of collapsing space-time. As humans we are limited to only seeing what is going on at one specific moment. These photographs are taking one scene, and compressing several hours into one frame of time. He then goes in after making hundreds of photographs to digitally compile them together to get one image to describe a scientific theory. So, Rosenholtz reads about scientific theories, finds a place where he can demonstrate this theory visually (usually collapsing space and time), photographs the same scene over and over again at different times of the day, and then digitally compiles the different images together to make one photograph. Each one of these white cars was, theoretically, in this frame of the world at one time. The cars themselves are not moved from where it was when the photograph was taken, but rather placed in its exact spot on a different plane of time. Not only are these images digitally composted, but are taken with a high-resolution digital SLR camera. In this way, he is using the technology that photo realists like Goings were, whether they know it or not, predicting. These high-resolution files, after being placed into a single file using photoshop, have a lot of post work done to them. The entire image is manipulated to reach extreme focus, a lot of the images could be mistaken for movie stills because of the heightened contrast, and they are printed upwards for 4 feet (though they could be printed even larger with the use of

the high resolution file). Like photo realist and Trompe-l'œil painters, Rosenholtz is using photoshop to make his images hyper real. The amount of texture and sharpness achieved from the file that comes out of the camera can be played with in such a way that the viewer can see every little detail of each part of the image. Much in the way that Goings’ or LaBarre’s paintings have a level of sharpness that is, without their hand, unobtainable. Comparison of Rosenholtz to Past Artists This way of making photographs begs a lot of questions. Is this image really just an odd moment caught at the right time? Is this image trying to sell me something? Are all these cars paid drivers that were put together just to set up this photograph? Is this digitally manipulated or does this scene just look that strange? All these questions are valid and challenge the viewer in many of the same ways that all of the above artists are challenging the viewer’s eye as well as perception of the real. Each of these artists has a lot of things in common. First of all they all appear to be able to be used in commercial applications. The Trompe-l'œil paintings were made to be hung in spaces where they could be used to trick onlookers. John’s Paint Cans could be sold in any store that has figurines. Goings’ paintings have a commercial sleekness to them that comes straight out of pop art. And Rosenholtz photograph looks like an advertisement for a car company. But at the same time they all subvert (with maybe the exception of Trompe-l'œil) what their real application is for. The paint can is

used to subvert the idea of Trompe-l'œil, by making it a sculpture and putting it into the gallery, Johns is questioning the tradition as well as meaning of the Trompe-l'œil tradition. Goings’ is part of a group of painters who are in retaliation against pop and abstract expressionism, using paint as a way to make banal snap shots into big, extremely sharp and hyper realistic images. And Rosenholtz’s photograph are questioning space-time, as well as ones perception of what is considered real. Also, these photographs have the same quality as a Going’s picture; they seem to be real but have more sharpness and detail than the eye can see, pushing the idea of hyper reality. Final Discussion and Conclusion Rosenholtz is doing a lot of what photo-realist painters were doing in their day. Turning seemingly banal imagery from “low art” to “hight art” through the use of a multitude of digital images compiled together along with the postproduction work. Also the setting in which Rosenholtz is placing the images, in an art school context opposed to a magazine or advertisement, and asking viewers to deal with the way he is reinterpreting the conventional use of a camera. This ties in with how Goings’ was using banal snapshot images and turning them into something extraordinary through the use of airbrushing and large scale paintings to turn snapshots (low art) into big meaningful works (high art). Today, when the lines between different styles of photography such as fine art, commercial, advertising, and fashion are all being blurred together; Rosenholtz is asking the question of

where those lines stand today and is exploring how to subvert them; much like Goings’ and John’s work. Another thing that Rosenholtz’s photograph has is a coolness to it stylistically that lines up with the coolness of any of the above-mentioned artists. Again, the sort of commercial or advertising style to Rosenholtz’s photographs give it a feeling of being emotionally and visually cool. (Jacobs, 2008) Rosenholtz runs into a lot of the same issues that photo-realist and Trompe-l'œil painters have which is that they are strictly a visual exercise. That both the paintings, or in Rosenholtz’s case, photographs, can be seen as a craft exercise. That these works are no more than a visual “eye candy” (Jacobs, 2008) and there is nothing else to get out of them. Whether or not the artists in this paper think the same way about these images as many critics as well as myself do, is up for debate. Rosenholtz sometimes only describes them as visual manifestations of scientific principles and nothing more, which makes them culturally and historically uninteresting. Also, there is the question of whether or not this type of work is either good or bad for the fine art world of photography. Are these type of hyper stylized images that appear to be for an advertisement or commercial application dooming the future of the fine art world? Much like fashion photographs out of Vogue or GQ magazine going into a fine art gallery are questioned, these photographs could be asked the same thing. I would like to think that they would fit in just as wel, but I am sure that a lot of more modernist photographers would argue that yes, this type of work has no place in a

gallery setting. Pushing these lines and boundaries, and playing with the idea of a fine art photograph are much of what makes this type of work interesting. I would like to think Rosenholtz is thinking about these blurred lines and pushing the boundaries of photography and art in general.


1. Richard LaBarre Goodwin, Hunting Cabin Door, n.d. Oil on canvas, 52x32 inches. Approx: 1886


Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze (Savarin). Bronze and Paint. 1960


Ralph Goings, Airstream. Oil on Canvas. 60x85 inches. 1970


Gregory Crewdson, Untitled. Digital Chromogenic print. 64 ¼ x 94 ¼ inches. 2004


Sam Rosenholtz, Untitled, Inkjet Print. 24x36 inches. 2008.

1. Arthur, J (1980). Realism Photorealism. USA: The Williams Company of

2. Fletcher, K (June, 2008). Gregory Crewdson's Epic Effects. Smithsonian

Magazine, Retrieved december, 13, 2008, from
3. Frankenstein, A (1970). The Reality of Appearance. New York, NY: New

York Graphic Society LTD.
4. Jacobs, J (2008).The Two Sides of Photorealism. Art & Antiques. 31, 70-

5. Milman, M (1982). Trompe-L'oeil Painting. New York, NY: Skira Rizzoli.

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