Last week, a photograph by Andreas Gurksy, Rhein II, was sold at auction for $4,338,500 to an anonymous buyer. The record-breaking sale allowed Gursky to reclaim fame as the artist whose work has claimed the highest price paid for a photograph. This auction was a secondary market sale. As in most art auctions commanding high prices and press attention, the artist sees little if any financial benefit.
What do you think of the image? Is it art? Is it art you would consider to be worth $4 million? $1 million?
It wasn’t this lowly jpeg that was sold. Seeing the print — considered a very important part of the art of photography — is an experience in itself. To see this work in person, you would be gazing at a print eight feet by twelve feet. Even today’s relatively advanced digital cameras, devices used by professional wedding photographers and amateurs like me around the world, wouldn’t be able to produce a print that size with quality and resolution. This image was most likely produced with a large format camera using analog film.
There’s only one way to determine the value of a work of art: offer it to a wide audience of potential art buys and determine what at least one of them would be willing to pay to take it home. Looking beyond the simple supply-and-demand answer, any piece of art is able to fetch a certain price at auction due to only a few factors. Some aspects moving a price aren’t related to the specific piece of art as much as the artist.
- Buyers look for a works by photographers who have a history of creating art in demand by galleries and collectors.
- Photographers who were trained by other artists who have been successful are also rewarded for their potential.
- In most cases, buyers believe that the art will be worth more in the future, and view the purchase as an investment.
Some reasons behind a price relate to the process of creating the art. It’s only recently that photography has become accepted as art, color photography even more recently, and many artists still consider photographs with digital manipulation in editing software like Photoshop not art at all. Photography still has a long way to go before it’s fully accepted alongside oil painting and sculpture as art. That’s reflected in value as well; while this $4 million price for Rhein II is a nice sum, it falls short of the Running Man I sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, which fetched a sale price of $104.3 million recently.
The fact that this image was captured using a large format camera, a process that is significantly more involved than pointing and shooting, helps to add to the value, but many photographers, particularly landscape artists and architectural photographers, still use large format cameras. The type of camera cannot be the sole reason driving the value of art, but it is an important factor when an artist is striving for the best quality possible.
Although this image looks simple, a lot of planning went into its creation. Artists carefully plan the time and place, bring the right equipment, and without a digital camera, do not have the luxury of taking a flurry of snapshots to choose the best image of one hundred on a memory card. Often, a work of art is part of a series or a study on a particular theme, and in the case of Rhein II, the photograph falls within a series about the river in Germany.
Ken Rockwell, a respected but divisive photographer who has one of the most popular websites about the art, has this to say about the photograph.
It is valuable because it is art, not just a photo. Rules are worthless. If [Gurksy] was just a photographer instead of an artist, he would have been crippled by the nonexistent “rule of thirds” myth, and put the horizon someplace else. In his case, the horizon slams right through the middle, which adds to the power by giving a sense of unease. Our minds ask “what’s up with this? This is so barren and empty; where is this place?”
Likewise, if it’s not captured on film, it is not art. Artists create art, not photographers. Artists may choose to work in photography, but being an artist is what matters above all…
If shot with a digital Nikon or Canon like amateur photographers, it would not have been art. If he used a zoom lens or many modern prime lenses, their distortion would have subtly curved the lines, weakening and destroying the artist’s work.
Ken doesn’t point out that Gursky did digitally manipulate the image after making the capture. The view portrayed by the image above doesn’t exist in nature. Gursky removed people, dogs, and a building from the captured image to create the art.
Nevertheless, the image is so simple that it looks like something anyone can capture, standing beside any river in the world on any dreary day. One nature of art is the ability to stir emotions in a spectator, even if that emotion is anger in response to a sale price, frustration that an image of mostly straight lines and solid colors can be considered art, jealousy that another photographer’s images wouldn’t fetch such a price, confusion about why it’s acceptable for some digitally manipulated images to be considered art while others aren’t, or questioning whether the image is art at all.
This describes the industry reaction to the sale. The Luminous Landscape forums are buzzing with comments about this sale and the image from professional photographers — mostly commercial photographers who dabble with artistic photography, specializing in medium and large format cameras.
Why spend so much money on art?
With so many problems in the world, why spend $4 million on one piece of art rather than using that money to build a school or feed starving children? This is a fair question to ask. At this high level of sophisticated art acquisition, there is a big emphasis on the investment aspect of art. With the photographer still living and with photographic art still being rare compared to other visual art methods, there is a good possibility of the value of this work increasing over the very long term.
Although it’s common to question the intent of purchasing a work of art for $4 million, investors who dedicate the same amount of money to a company to become an owner of that company usually won’t face the same questions about the virtue of their investment. Both buying art and buying a company are capitalistic endeavors, but while the value of a company can be easily justified by looking at a set of financial reports, the art is more difficult to rationalize. Regardless of the reasons, the value of a company or a work of art is whatever someone is willing to pay.
By investing in art, it sends a signal that art, in general, is worth society’s attention. Art is an important part of civilized society, and both reacts to and inspires thought that drives a society forward.
Published or updated November 16, 2011.