The record auction selling price for a photograph is $4.3 million for Rhein II by Andreas Gursky. Could this photograph really be worth the price? Here’s the simple answer: It’s worth the price if someone pays it. Beyond that, what does a huge purchase price for a photograph mean? Does the high price mean the photograph is better than all other photographs? Does it mean the buyer knows more than the rest of us? Does it mean the photograph is unique?
It’s easy to have a gut reaction telling you that paying $4.3 million for any photograph is insane. First, let’s clarify that this picture did not sell at this price because of historical significance such as being the only image of JFK’s assassin taking aim, or the first ever shot of an alien from outer space. It sold for this amount under the classification of being art.
The photo is a shot of the Rhein river after certain elements were digitally removed by the photographer. The top half of the image is gray sky, followed below by a strip of grass, the river, more grass, a sidewalk, and more grass. The shapes and composition are horizontal lines; the colors are green and gray/blue. If the location actually existed as shown in the picture, the composition could have been shot by anyone with a phone camera. Some commentators have said that the removal of “undesired” elements in the scene is part of what makes the image so valuable. Others have said that the huge size of 73 x 143 inches, along with its high resolution, also contribute to the value. Because most of us can see it only in electronic form, what we do see is extraordinary only in being extremely average, however detailed it may be in person.
I have not had the opportunity to view this photograph in person, which is a significant limitation on my ability to evaluate the image fairly. But how much fairness is needed in considering the value of a seemingly mundane picture that was purchased for a price that could pay for eight or more posh houses? Although the photo may be excellent, and the person who pays $4.3 million for it has every right to do so, this purchase may be the perfect illustration of collective insanity manufactured by an elite group trying to elevate the value of photography as art. (And I do agree that photography is art just as much as any traditional media can be art).
Could it be that this is a marketing gimmick, even though the money was actually exchanged for the picture? Now, we are told by “experts” why this photo is so great, something they would not have been able to do without the high selling price. They tell us that the photographer (artist) is making a comment on photography as art by printing an image so large and presenting it like a traditional painting, so that it gets the same respect as traditional painted artwork (which really begs the question: how could this be valid if it weren’t sold for millions first?). They tell us that the simplicity of the image (having had elements removed) makes it insightful in its presentation. They tell us that the colors and details bring viewers into the image for an absorbing experience. They point out that the photographer contemplated this image for more than a year before shooting it, and that he also spent a lot of time making it. Yet, none of this is unique or even uncommon in many forms of art.
All these statements present as excuses rather than honest reactions to the work itself. What I haven’t heard is people saying that the picture blew them away; that they couldn’t tear their eyes from it; that it moved them in a way they can’t explain; that their lives would be changed if they could only hang it on their walls. Instead, we get attempts at explanation, descriptions that could apply to thousands of images and artists. Remember, we’re not talking about someone saying, “Hey, I like that, and I want to take it home. I’ll pay $5,000 for it.” No, we’re talking about an amount most people don’t spend in their lifetimes. On that scale, I say the photograph is not worth the price paid.
I don’t find it appealing, and I don’t see the need to talk myself into liking it because it sold for an insanely high price. I wouldn’t want it for any price, and if I would have taken a picture like it, I would have deleted it. Rhein II is not better than every other photograph. The buyer does not know more than the rest of us. It is not unique in any of the excuses or descriptions provided, which could be attributed to thousands of photographs. But it is unique on one regard: it is uniquely stupid in having been purchased for $4.3 million. What do you think? Please comment below. If you want to see some pictures selling for less than $4.3 million, you can look at my gallery here: Steve Patchin Photography Gallery.