Photo as Subject: The Paintings and Drawings of Chuck Close

Small woman looking at large painting.

The Photo As Subject

People keep asking me if I'm still painting heads, and if I say yes, they think there's been no change.
Chuck Close (1)  

Originally published in Arts Magazine, February, 1974, and reprinted in Super Realism, A Critical Anthology (E.P. Dutton, 1975) This version was edited, and some of the illustrations are new.
Copyright © 1974, 1999
by William Dyckes.

The article can be downloaded as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file.
Two years ago an art-history seminar at a West Coast university discussed the topic Chuck Close: What Can He Do Next? They devoted several days to his work and the corner into which they believed he had painted himself, yet none of them had ever actually seen one of his paintings.

It is unlikely that many people would comment on an artist like van Gogh strictly on the basis of magazine illustrations. Nevertheless, many do not seem to be aware of the dangers of drawing conclusions from greatly reduced halftone reproductions of photographs of paintings that are intentionally photographic in appearance. The Photo Realist segment of the New Realist movement has been the victim of many such oversights: of the ironic fact that the very medium that inspired it is also the one called upon to disseminate it; of a superficial resemblance to other methods of painting that portray the visible world; of the various pressures applied by those who had reason to encourage or discourage realist movements; and of critical attitudes that have moved reluctantly from outright rejection to tepid recognition of established fact. Of all these artists, none would seem to have been as misunderstood or underestimated as Chuck Close, despite the fact that he has been one of the most successful in getting at the central problems that Photo Realism poses.

It is the economy of his style and his human subject matter that have created most of the confusion. It is a difficulty that might be overcome if people were to think of Photo Realism in terms of field painting instead of Pop Art—as a system of "art marks," as Close has often called them, rather than icons of the banal.


The accurate translation of three-dimensional shapes and settings into two dimensions has been a central problem for realist painters since the invention of linear perspective. With the invention of photography, artists were finally relieved of the task of documentation and left to pursue more entertaining problems. Although a fair number of those who depended on portraiture for a living were pleased to have access to a mechanical means of resolving the spatial-translation problem, the majority clearly viewed the camera as an unworthy rival. They began to turn away from stricter forms of representation to stress the abstract design qualities that only the artist's hand and eye could capture and to make a conscious point of the uniqueness of the materials. (2) The idea of borrowing not only the technical skills of the camera but of imitating the photo’s physical characteristics was literally unthinkable at the time—and continues to be so for a large part of the public even today .

By the latter half of the sixties, art was ripe for a photographic style. This was not because of a renewed interest in realism, but because the camera and the photograph had achieved such absolute currency in everyday life. There was no longer any question of competition after a hundred years of the most radical experimentation in both arts. Moreover, the imagery of the media had become an integral part of the landscape. It was recorded, interpreted, and even printed on the paintings of a generation of artists. At the same time, artists moving into areas involving performance or monumental constructions at a distance from the public turned to the camera to document, interpret, enhance, and distribute their work. Photo Realism was undoubtedly a foregone conclusion—even if no one happened to be aware of it at the time. (3)


Subject matter has presented the Photo Realists with many problems. The traditional weight of this element in representational art proved a distraction to viewer and artist alike. And although some artists minimized the confusion by limiting themselves to single subjects, viewers came to distinguish them by what they usually depict rather than by their technical concerns.

The near-absence of the human figure in the Photo Realist movement should have made it clear that this particular approach to realism was not like the others that have perennially appeared since the invention of Cubism. Of all the artists who began working with photo-based images in the mid-sixties, only Close elected to focus on the human figure. Yet in spite of this, he has managed to sidestep the many problems raised by the long European tradition of figure painting. Stressing the photographic qualities of the image enables him to treat his subject more as an object than as a human being. Even so, his decision to paint faces went against the conventions being prescribed by those who view the photo-realist impulse in terms of Pop Art and others who insist that banal subject matter is an essential element of American realist painting.

Close was moved in part by the need for a more demanding model against which to measure his work. He felt that painting less-specific, nonhuman surfaces would allow him to get away with being imprecise, for it would be too difficult for him (and the viewer) to detect. The human face provides as many problems of shape, texture, surface detail, and reflection as the materials of city landscapes—but by using his friends as subjects, he forces himself to be accurate. And if faces are not among the least-emotional things one can portray, the struggle to keep them impersonal has added to the interest of making them.


Close employs a gigantic scale so that the photograph's information about the surface of the face will be not merely available but unavoidable. When approaching one of these works in a gallery, one is first aware only of the head itself. However, upon moving in one is forced to relinquish this image and deal only with the real content of the painting: how the details of a face as recorded by a camera have been translated by the artist into colors and shapes made of paint. At this distance, the illusion of space provided by the limited focus gives way to awareness of the flatness of the painted surface, and the brilliance of certain highlights fades into the dullness of the paper and paint—just as the image itself becomes a kind of abstract landscape. (4)

This treatment of scale is more important and complex than one might expect, for the concept has changed drastically in recent times. Scale is no longer a relatively minor element dictated by the subject matter or by factors exterior to the work itself (would it decorate an entire wall or a small chamber? was its purpose to exalt or simply to record?). Since the day that Jackson Pollock extended the working gesture to include the entire arm and torso—to his own ability to throw the paint across the canvas—scale has been carried to colossal proportions. Today these seem to be limited only by the physical and economic means available to the artist (e.g., Claes Oldenburg's proposals for gigantic monuments based on everyday objects and Michael Heizer's “drawings” made with a motorcycle). Scale was far more essential to Pop than it had been to Abstract Expressionism, encouraged by billboards, the generally prodigious proportions of the cityscapes it celebrated, and the anything-goes attitude of the artists.
        Though he arrived at it for very different reasons, Close's huge scale encouraged people to see his work in the same terms as James Rosenquist's and to assume that what he was doing was merely a technically more-refined version. (5) In fact, his scale has proved to be quite unique. John Roy (the subject of the painting John) once pointed out to Close that when the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists became larger, their brushwork also became larger, so that scale—part to whole—actually remained the same. Close was the first painter to work on such an enormous scale without making correspondingly large marks.


Close keeps the anonymous, head-on mug shots as cool as possible, lighting and posing them not to flatter the subject but to supply interesting painting problems. He discourages any suggestion of expression on the part of the model—a smile would provide a whole new set of lines and shapes and textures to examine, but the overall look of the image would be too strong. "I reject humanist issues in my work," Close insists, but he admits "that doesn't mean that there aren't, ultimately, other levels of content. It's just that I can't afford to think about them."

In spite of his attempts to reduce emotional content, the works unavoidably retain (or acquire) a certain level. The sheer size of the heads leads to the use of the word monumental and suggests a kind of exaltation of humanity or a godlike superiority. The effect is further encouraged by a concession to the logic of the image: shooting the photos from slightly lower angle than usual, in keeping with the visual relationship that the viewer will have with the work when first confronting it.

Close's gargantuan amplification and literal interpretation of photographic information force us to realize how little we have examined the world around us or the various ways in which it is presented to us. The fact that so many people persist in seeing these paintings as highly factual representations of people rather than as photographic representations of people is proof of our total assimilation of photographic syntax. It is easy enough to overlook the distortions in a family snapshot or a newsphoto, but it requires a lifetime of training to screen so much out of a nine-foot-high painting.


The 160 mm lens is the focal length that most closely resembles that of the eye (8-by-10-inch camera). Close, however, uses a 190 mm lens to take the photograph he will work from. He does this in order to restrict the depth of field to only an inch or so at the plane of the eyes. A longer lens can do this more easily than a lens of normal length, but it also compresses the image. (As in the familiar "stacked-up" look encountered in movies in which distant automobiles on a highway appear to be on top of one another.)

The distortion is fairly mild with a 190 mm lens, yet it alters the subject's appearance enough to give a narrower look to the head. In Close's work, this is partially camouflaged by the extremely tight focus. But—along with the "push" of the focus—it may well contribute to the strange sensation that we get from these portraits. Most influential is the fact that his subjects’ eyes are focused on the distant camera lens. This creates the disturbing sensation of the portrait looking through the viewer.

Depth of field is closely linked with scale in Close’s work. An extremely limited depth of field is only confusing in a normal-size photograph, because an out-of-focus tip of a nose makes no sense to us when it is only a fraction of an inch away from a sharply focused eye. But taken up to a scale where the two are several feet apart, the differences become understandable. A very vivid sensation of physical depth is established, in which the eyes are level with the picture plane, the nose seems to hover out in front, and the ears and shoulders are set well back. The result is so striking that one wonders how it happens that painters have for so long ignored or rejected focus as a means of suggesting depth. (6)

Close's painted focus clashes with our own. Close manipulates the focus and perspective in an attempt to "orchestrate" our response, establishing preferential viewing distances and leading the eye. He does not, however, try to follow the cinematic convention of using focus to designate important areas. On the contrary, he fully intends to call attention to the beauty of the reflection of an earring or a strand of hair when it is blurred—things that we would never normally notice in a photograph or a film and are incapable of seeing with our eyes alone. He notes that the pleasure that he gets in discovering these details is one of the principal risks he runs: the unconscious desire to "crank it up a little" and make the area too interesting.

Unlike the many forms of realism that tend to celebrate the visible world and the remarkable abilities of the painter's eye, Photo Realism is essentially critical. It raises questions about the way we see and reminds us of the many physical and psychological factors that alter, compensate, or diminish the things we look at. These artists do not present photographs as a more truthful way of seeing, but as a means of understanding more about what we do see. Photo Realism is not only unconcerned with realism, it is actively involved with artificiality. Those artists who use the camera as something more than a translation device—and they are the only ones who may accurately be called Photo Realists—are aware of its shortcomings and distortions, and gladly make use of them to expand the vocabulary of art.


1   All unidentified quotes are taken from tape-recorded interviews made with the artist between January and September 1973. Close read, corrected, and discussed the manuscript prior to publication. I am also indebted to Don Eddy for suggestions and observations about Close's art and his own.


2  "Impressionistic composition is unthinkable without the application of focus. The lens of the camera taught the painter . . . that all subjects cannot he seen with equal clearness . . . it was the broadcast appearance of the photographic images in the eighteen-sixties that taught the Impressionists to see and represent life in focal planes and divisions." Sadakichi Hartmann, The Whistler Book (Boston, 1910), pp. 163-164, quoted in Van Deren Coke, The Painter and the Photograph. (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1971).


3  For a more extensive commentary on the Pop generation's interest in and approach to photography, see Richard Hamilton's collected statements and observations in the Guggenheim Museum catalogue of his work, published September 1973.


4  Several years ago Close experimented with scale in another medium. Using a live model and a very precise system of panning, he made a portrait with a movie camera, slowly crossing the picture area with a macro-close-up lens. The system effectively enforced a concentration on details, but viewers were unable to identify the head from photos after only one showing. Slow Pan/Bob, 16 mm, black-and-white, ten minutes long, 1970.


5   See, for example, Hilton Kramer's attack on Close as recently as two years ago (The New York Times, December 26, 1971). What seems to have happened is that there is an inevitable confusion of motivations caused by the overlapping of our rather brief contemporary "periods." Close sees the way he does because he is really a product of the fifties, "when you were sort of programmed to turn on to oil slicks on mud puddles and cracks in the sidewalk and all that." Trying to link him too directly to the inventions of Pop is extremely misleading because he thinks more like an Abstract Expressionist. Don Eddy is another good example of the varied sources of the Photo Realist movement. He started to paint while a student in Hawaii, isolated from contemporary movements. He gradually moved toward a photo-realistic style in part because of his background as a professional photographer and because his experience with major art works was largely based on transparencies.


Don Eddy, detail of Silver Shoes, The Seavest Collection of Contemporary American Realism
6  Close is not, of course, the only one to be experimenting with focus and perspective today—although a surprisingly small number of artists are. Ben Schonzeit has done some of the most spectacular things in this area, but his contributions were obscured for a long time by the distracting conglomeration of colors and effects he put into each painting. In 1973 he began to concentrate on simpler and more easily recognized subjects, relying too heavily, perhaps, on sheer size. Don Eddy is a particularly interesting case because he has gone for just the opposite effect, using the camera to achieve a highly restricted sense of dimension. In his more recent works, he has moved away from surface reflections to deal with transparencies. Eddy manipulates extreme depth of field to overcome the natural selectiveness of the eye and to sandwich many planes of differing depths on the same level. He, too, is essentially a field painter, more concerned with the interactions of shapes and colors than with the representation of specific objects in space.