There are many ways that one can capture the urban environment. Its people, its places, its moments and its madness. Richard Estes’ magpie eye was attracted to those things that would shine. That doesn’t mean jewellery and other decorative features though, but the daily fixtures of urban life, glass doors, metal frames and anything else that reflected the sun's light.
Estes’ fascination with light is something of a love story captured in fairly unromantic paintings. Not many people would look at the doors to a post office or bank and see a muse, but with incredible photorealistic brushstrokes, the American painter brought the inanimate features of a city to bountiful life.
Emerging into the international art scene in the 60s and 70s, Estes is noted for contributing to the assimilation of photography and ‘art’ at that time. By literally painting photographs, to the point where they’re often indistinguishable, the artist was able to reinforce the power of simply capturing life as is - without the conceptual nature of other movements popular at the time.
Saying that, Estes did choose to deviate from reality very slightly. In his images, he’d faithfully reproduce any adverts, signs or stickers, but would omit things like litter or snow - presenting a clean, crisp and angular analysis of the urban environment. It was his belief that such superfluous elements would ultimately detract from the beauty that he identified in the everyday.
Always captured during the day, ingratiating the natural rawness of the sun’s solar energy with signs of urban modernity, Estes’ image retain a stillness, the kind of calm that is rarely experienced in the environment that he depicts, yet evokes an idyllic and idealistic vision of what contemporary cities could be - although the reality is often quite different.
In this sense, he is a true romantic. The ugliness that can often be associated with urban centres become nostalgic visions of beauty. Facades are removed from their social, cultural and political contexts enough to give his audience a level playing field to engage with his art and subject on an aesthetic level.
Although the aesthetics were a key component of the artist’s work, so too was the composition itself, particularly the dual imagery on display - the ‘main’ focus and the reflected focus. The latter is more subtle, but equally as important. What we see in the windows and the polished metal gave Estes an opportunity to add a deeper narrative to his images, as well as a playful sense of intrigue.
The narrative duality exists alongside the physical duality. In the doors and windows we have permanence. Man-made objects that are built to endure. The reflections, on the other hand, are ephemeral and, often, singular occurrences. These puzzles within the framework of a static image are both technically and conceptually interesting, the interplay between the two contributing to Estes’ status as one of the foremost practitioners of photorealistic art and a leading documentarian of urban life.
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