Painters and Optical Devices (Part 3 Richard Estes)

This is the third and final post in a series describing how artists have used optical devices, cameras and photographs to aid and inform their representational paintings. The first post looked at the work of Johannes Vermeer. The second post examined the work of Edgar Degas. Although these posts have each featured a specific artist, the artists mentioned are only examples from their time period. Multiple painters from the 17th century were influenced by the camera obscura and many from the 19th century onward owe a nod to the invention of photography.

This post will discuss the paintings of 20th century Photo Realist Richard Estes.

Richard Estes’ paintings flat out celebrate photography in all its glory. He is generally considered to be one of the original Photo Realist (or hyper realist) painters of the 1960s.

While the objects depicted in a photo may be engaging to look at, the Photo Realists are concerned with how that content has been filtered and transformed by the camera. The photograph – with all its unique subtleties – is their subject matter.

In most of his compositions Estes emphasizes surfaces and reflections. This is something that the camera lens is uniquely capable of capturing. When humans look at a complex scene we focus on a limited range of what is happening. We see, for example, the smudge on the surface of a window or we look at what lies beyond the window pane. We almost never concentrate on both things at the same time. The camera, however, is capable of seeing it all without putting a priority on anything.

Using several photographs of the same scene as his source, Estes paints the surface of the glass, what lies beyond it, and what is reflected in it. He also compares the reflective surface qualities of different materials such as glass, metal and polished stone. The resulting paintings are incredibly complex and visually engaging.

Estes builds compositions that describe the visual density in front of and behind the viewer. He suggests the many overlaid systems and human activities that make up the fabric of a bustling urban world.

Oil painting, "Horn and Hardart Automat," by Richard Estes

Horn and Hardart Automat is an oil on canvas painted in 1967. Here you can clearly see Estes’ early interest in transparency and reflection. The glass storefront windows are the middle ground with customers seen beyond the glass and objects behind the viewer reflected on the surface of the window. All are equally emphasized. Although the detail throughout this painting is quite simplified and stylized, it remains convincing as a photo documentation.

Oil painting, "Columbus Circle Looking North," by Richard Estes

Columbus Circle Looking North is an oil on canvas from 2009. Here you can see that Estes has significantly raised the bar on the way he represents real and reflected spaces. These storefront windows are double paned with double reflections and double layers of transparency in different areas across the composition. The showroom behind the large storefront windows contains smaller glass case displays with their own transparencies and reflections. The reflected buildings from across the street also have glass windows with reflections and transparencies. Even the sky is treated to a comparison between what is seen first hand and what is reflected in the large windows. This is a very complex scene.

By the mid-20th century, photography had become the dominant way of visually recording the world around us. Painters like Richard Estes and the Photo Realists acknowledge that fact and celebrate its qualities.

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