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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 3-

dementiality 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,


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 high-

resolution 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.


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.