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Blending photography techniques, painterly vision and realism
Photorealist art is, if one closely inspects, a kind of hyper-formalism; more about surface, form, and technique. The genre is essentially about the skill and vision to build a precise representation of reality with a touch of imagination. Photo-realism, often known as super-realism, is an art movement, which began in the US in the 1960s. As the term suggests, photo-realist painters took photography as base and inspiration to create highly illusionistic images. Artists like Ralph Goings, Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle, Chuck Close, and Audrey Flack tried to reproduce with paintbrush what the camera lens could record. Sculptors such as the Americans John De Andrea and Duane Hanson were associated with the movement, too. Though the mediums were different, the binding thread was to achieve a simulated reality.

Of course, photorealism as a painterly tool to express on canvas is not exactly a recent phenomenon. Painters from the US and Europe had been seeking inspiration from photos since the early era of photography. Throwing light on its evolution, art scholar historian Dr Alka Pande notes: “The importance of photography in the enterprise of finding an interface between documentary ‘evidence’ and the social imaginary is gaining ground. Even for itself, photography may be said to have enlarged its intrinsic value as an art form by entering the expanded frame of installation art. Thus it begins to share the peculiarity of the phenomenological encounter the museum/gallery space encourages.”

For record, the movement spurred out of the earlier Pop & Minimalism movements. Like the preceding pop artists, the photo-realists wanted to include everyday life scenes and signage, for breaking down pre-conceived hierarchies of subject matter. They drew from commercial imagery and advertising. Many purists perceived this movement as a setback to modern abstract painting. Photo-realists typically would project an image onto a canvas and use an airbrush for reproducing the effect of a photograph printed on a piece of glossy paper. Estes argued that the painting was merely the technique of finishing it up, involved primarily with the photograph. Flack chose to update the 17th century theme of vanitas by projecting slides of certain opulent still-life arrangements onto canvases, alluding to the fleeting nature of most material things.

Artists around 1430, centuries before anyone could suspect it, secretly used camera-like devices, including the lens, the concave mirror and the camera obscura, to make realistic paintings. Those like Caravaggio, Lotto, Vermeer and Ingres knew the magic of photographic projection. They saw how good these devices were at projecting a three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface. This was the finding of a thesis ‘art and optics’ by David Hockney who concluded that they knew how good these devices were at projecting a three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface. What is equally curious about the process is that while the subject matter is generally man-made objects set in an urban environ, many of the works are strikingly and surprisingly devoid of signs of life – as if resembling mere architectural models.

With media culture becoming universal, reflecting and representing post modern forms, the technique has acquired a contemporary hue with artists logically and instinctively turning to it for inspiration. Several Indian artists carefully sift through the barrage of visual content with an idea of recreating and relocating these references on canvas. For them, the process is not a mere reproduction or a dispassionate reportage. They rediscover the visual references to add a new dimension through their intellectual inputs, to fill the images with alternative meanings.

For instance, celebrated painter Atul Dodiya has gradually switched to an allegorical dramatization of his painterly dilemmas in the epoch of intriguing installation through a combination of self- portraits and witty tableaux. Subodh Gupta imparts surrealist touches to a pop/photorealist style. His ‘Vilas’ is an example of stark self-representation through a potent photo installation

Painters like Baiju Parthan, TV Santosh, Bose Krishnamachari and Shibu Natesan too have been experimenting with digital images in their works of art. The latter combines familiar images with bold, colorful palettes to enhance his unique, collage-like compilations. The image is a metaphor that he internalizes. The result is a mixture of hyper-realism and fantasy, whereas TV Santhosh appropriates references from such sources as magazines, newspapers and television.

The influence of print media is reflected in the photographic quality of his works, both in their clarity and composition. The artist blends both the negative and positive within one single frame. A photographic negative is usually the 'original' from which a photograph is printed, and so lies the paradox of his method of revealing the concealed truths of war. The inversion of the image gives the picture a new context and meaning as the darkest areas in the original image are transformed into the brightest highlights.

Bharti Kher’s practice encompasses digital photography that continues to explore her interest in kitsch and popular consumer culture. In her three digital photographs from the “Hybrids” series, she fashions women, children and everyday household objects with animal features. Her clever substitution of animals for people enables her to explore ingrained elements of behavior — enveloped by civility covering underlying human urges. Also, the hybrid character of the images becomes a metaphor for and a spectacularly physical embodiment of the ever contradictory human nature in the context of globalized urban society.

Riyas Komu is another prominent contemporary Indian artist who has chosen to embrace photorealism. One of the torchbearers of photorealism, so to say, he is renowned for his larger-than-life realist portraits of common an uncommon subjects like migrants and football players. On the other hand, Bose Krishnamachari, who created quite a few photorealistic works in the early part of his careers, now prefers installation and video. However, most artists are wary of falling in a pattern or being labeled as photo-realists. Expressing her concerns, Prajakta Potnis has stated: “I find it too deadening to simply refer to a photograph – it is unemotional and dry.” Instead she prefers sourcing her visuals from at a live object, interplay of light & shade; to explore the possibility of transforming it into a work of art rife with human touch and emotions. Several contemporary Indian artists, inspired by real-life images, are raising issues relevant to socio-political or personal identities.