New Orleans art collectors Walda and Sydney Besthoff were looking for "some abstruse part of the art world not too well known," Sydney Besthoff says, to begin developing a comprehensive art collection. That's when they encountered Photorealism.

In the late 1950s, a small group of painters created the art movement as a nod to photography as art. When the camera was invented, over a century before the photorealists responded, photography immediately leapt to the forefront of documentation, superseding portraits and paintings of historic moments. Through the lens of the camera, a photograph stood for unbiased truth in the way a painting never could.

At first glance, Photorealism looks like a painted copy of a photograph. But there are significant differences as the subject passes from the mechanical shutter of a camera through the painter's brush. Because a camera has a single lens, images are recorded in a monocular fashion ' through one eye. But a painter has two eyes, and the depth of perspective in Photorealism has more to do with a human perception of an image than its exact replica. Exaggerated color is another Photorealism characteristic, as the painter manipulates his subject.

The first generation of photorealist painters worked in the 1960s and '70s. Their subject matter is mostly urban scenes. Street scenes, buildings, and the two iconic images of the era ' gas stations and diners ' are all represented. Reflections off glass, metal or water, a popular image of the period, shows off the virtuosity of these artists.

The Besthoffs acquired paintings by each of the 20 or so major painters in the movement. Today, they own one of the most comprehensive collections of Photorealism in the country. Sydney Besthoff is the heir of beloved New Orleans K&B drug stores, famous for the purple K&B logo and long-gone soda fountains. The local drug store chain was sold to Rite-Aid in the 1990s, but the Besthoffs' Crescent City presence continues with the founding of the Contemporary Art Center and the sculpture garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

While Photorealism attracts high prices at art auctions, the genre has not been well received by museums, and there are no permanent collections in the United States. Photorealism from the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection, now on display at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum through Dec. 31, is a rare chance to view a comprehensive collection of this distinctive art movement.


For more info on Photorealism from the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection, on exhibit at the University Art Musuem, go to the museum's Web site, www.museum.louisiana.edu, or call 482-2278.

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