Isn't a camera enough?

Paintings that look like photographs are suddenly back in vogue. Annalisa Barbieri finds out why
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The Independent Culture
The pictures take a month, four months, a year to make. And they are copies. Systematic, modular, painstaking copies of photographs. For just such work the 31-year-old photo- realist Jason Brooks last week won the NatWest Art Prize, one of Britain's biggest art prizes, worth pounds 26,000. The award, coinciding with the retrospective next month of work by one of photorealism's founding fathers, heralds a new phase and a new love of the genre: the art of copying a photograph with paint.

Photorealism is the easiest art movement for most people to get a handle on. The picture looks like something we all recognise: a photograph. And the subject matter is usually either one of us, or a slice of popular culture we are familiar with: a neon sign, a motorbike, a discarded lighter. Not surprisingly it is pooh-poohed by many art eggheads. "It is," says one, "the least intellectually demanding of the art movements." Photorealism was big in the late 1960s and 1970s when it was heavily used for advertising and Athena posters - pause here for a flashback to those pictures of American cars (often in a crashed state) in boiled-sweet high-shine colours.

This is where the American Chuck Close comes in. Close, whose first retrospective in the UK opens at the Hayward in London next month, was embracing photorealism with a passion more than 30 years ago. In 1966 he painted "Big Nude," his first photorealist painting, which he copied from a black-and-white photo. Two years later he did his first photorealist portrait - of himself. These days, in a cannibalistic twist, he paints his fellow artists. So we have a photograph of an artist reproduced by an artist, using paint. It starts to get complicated.

Photorealists are obsessive creatures. Brooks works exactly the same hours every day, from 9am till 9pm. He grew up surrounded by his father's exacting engineering drawings and has always been fascinated by the way things are constructed. At college he would copy his classmates' style "and in a week," says a fellow student, "he would be doing it better". Brooks laughs now. "I was just deconstructing how things were made."

You have to be exacting to be this sort of painter. ("Forensic" is a word that crops up again and again in conversation with Brooks who, when not photorealising people, is painting funeral wreaths.) "Photorealism is the most meticulous of the 20th-century arts," says art historian Mark Gisbourne. "It is very flat and quite obsessive." So the question arises: When the photograph's already there, why do it? Isn't it just plain showing off?

"The photograph and the painting are two totally different things," explains Brooks. "Not only in scale and size, but the photograph changes by coming through me and my use of paint. That's what interests me. And painting has a totally different set of values. Photography is a mechanical and an instant thing; you can constantly reproduce it. Painting takes a long time and you can't just reproduce it as many times as you want." Interestingly, Brooks also sees himself as painting a photograph, not a person.

The first stage in photorealism is taking the photograph, usually on a large-format camera. Brooks, for the moment at least, works in black and white and shoots four frames. He does not direct his subjects but wants them to be as natural as possible. Laughing or pulling faces is not allowed - they would suggest an unnecessary narrative. The depth of field is very shallow and the focus is on the eyes. The nose and the ears, however, are always out of focus. It is this device that we recognise and that makes the paintings look like photographs.

The photograph is then made into a 20 x 24-inch print, the crop decided on, and the photograph gridded up so that each face deconstructs into a jigsaw puzzle. As a whole you get a picture; in isolation you get "little abstract paintings". The grid is scaled up and redrawn on the linen, and painting begins. (Some artists work by projecting the photograph on to the canvas and mark reference points.)

Brooks works with an airbrush, but photorealists can also work with brushes and even fingerprints. The paint is always acrylic or oil, the simplest of ingredients. Then Brooks begins meticulously to copy the photograph, starting with the eyes, and paints a grid at a time. "In this way it is non-hierarchical, and you can break off and come back to it." Depending on what part of the face is being reproduced, each square starts off the same. It is sprayed, to different densities, with black paint - the only colour used.

Where Chuck Close once used an airbrush, he now uses a paintbrush, with no more than a tablespoon or two of black paint for each canvas. Then he works back, picking out details. Shades of grey are created using putty rubber to soften the paint; a chisel is used to slice back to the linen, which is what any white you see is. Eyelashes are painted on using a brush. Brooks describes it as "almost like doing surgery". Asked whether his subjects prefer their painted or photographic likeness, Brooks thinks the first, although none of them has bought their own likeness.

Airbrushes divorce the painter from his canvas, leaving no artist's "hand". That's why Close first started using them, seeking, like the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, "to hide the record of his hand". Here is a paradox of photorealism - its practitioners want to copy something, but want to change it, yet also seek to remove anything as human as brush-strokes. As a child, Close would take a magnifying glass to his parents' magazines, "and I would scan the [hand- painted] covers, trying to figure out how paintings got made. I wanted to make a painting in which every square inch was made the same way... showing no display of the artist's hand in terms of virtuoso brushmanship but employing unbelievable handiwork, lots of labour. Impersonal but personal, arm's length but intimate."

Close's later work - for example 1994's Roy, shown on the left - has more of an expressionistic feel. It is less repressed. Close was confined to a wheelchair in 1988, after a spinal artery burst and left him paralysed. He now works with a brush strapped to his hand. "My work was changing anyway," he says, "but my new portraits have a celebratory aspect that wasn't there before. That's because I feel so happy that I was able to work after my illness."

Certainly there are more light-hearted, almost jokey references in his work: squiggles resembling hotdogs, fish, doughnuts. And by using a grid that is also orientated diagonally, he also "shows his hand".

Brooks acknowledges his debt to Close, who was interested to hear last week that a new generation of photorealists seemed to be emerging. "I've got no problem with people raiding the cultural ice-box," he says. "But frankly I didn't think anybody would be crazy enough to do it."

Yet among the 600 or so hopefuls for this year's NatWest Art Prize there were "definite tendencies towards photorealism in the submission of entries", says Rosemary Harris, the curator of the NatWest Group Art Collection. As well as Brooks, two of the runners-up also used photography as the starting-point for their work: directly copied from a photo, as in the case of Roland Hicks (hairbrush discarded on floor), or photo-inspired, as with Sarah Beddington (interior of launderette).

There are other signs that art is moving in new directions. Last year the Saatchi Gallery sold off work by conceptualist artists. There is a move back to "having one's portrait painted" (although neither Close nor Brooks does commissions) and a renewed appreciation of "craft" - of something having been made, and not by machine. So is photorealism the next art movement? "There is a desire for painters to get painting again," says Gisbourne, "and photorealism is easy on the eye. The public can understand it."

The NatWest Art 1999 Prize exhibition, showing a selection of works by the winner and the other shortlisted artists, continues until 27 August at 41 Lothbury, London EC2 (0171 726 1642). `Postcards on Photography' is currently touring the UK, with an exhibition at Camerawork, 121 Roman Road, London E2 (0181 980 6256) from 24 June until 31 August. Chuck Close is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (0171 921 0600), from 22 July to 19 September

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