The $4 Million Photograph: How Do You Value Art?

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Last updated on July 23, 2019 Comments: 14

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?

Rhein II

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 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.

Photo: Andreas Gursky/Christie’s Images, Ltd., 2011
NPR, Seattle PI, Ken Rockwell

Article comments

Anonymous says:

I don’t think there would be as many questions if we knew who purchased the art. $4M purchase bet the NY Museum of Art would be viewed a lot different than $4M spent by Joe Blow who managed a Visa card with a $5M limit or even Mr Moneybags who lends all his art to Museums. i don’t get a sense of $4M out of this piece but without $4M to spend ….

As for photography being art i can back that up completely. Having worked with a photo artist before i truly understand how much work goes into good photography. From a few brief experiences my own photographs have improved greatly. There is a lot of knowledge and small things that make big differences in turning photos into art.

Anonymous says:

I have a degree in art history. Unfortunately, when I was in college, the debate was raging as to whether or not photography was a legitimate art form at all. I thought at that time that indeed it was and the debate was ludicrous. The “eye” of the artist is what sets him apart. The ability to, in fact, disturb the viewer. And photography is the only art form where the viewer sees exactly what the artist saw, the way he saw it. This may seem an odd comparison, but what determines whether or not a work of art is great is in fact a little like how psychotherapy works. ” Is that which is observed as changed by his observation, as the the observer is changed by his observing?” In therapy that would be transference and countertransference. If it hold trud for three generations with a work of art, the “Oh my God” experience, good or bad, then it is deemed a worthy if not a great work of art. Remember that Monet’s show of water lillies was stoned and caused a riot in the streets and had to be shut down. Go figure.

Anonymous says:

Good heavens. The height of vanity..! This is one BIG money laundering scheme. Money changing hands for a large piece of manipulated photographic paper..!!! Oh, and he says “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.” F*** you. You’re just perpetuating the myth of any manipulated photo being art..!! Hell I am angry. Angry enough to tear that and any other piece of junk that sells for over a million. I’d rather see that “investment” going into something that creates value in the world. This piece of sh** creates an overwhelming emotion of anger over price rather than anything else. I have seen paintings and sculptures, that create emotions purely because of their message, their quality… That is art..! What if the photographer creates another print? Shouldn’t that fetch the same. I see no point in this. Investors must not be given opportunities to throw away their money in such useless pursuits. They have created an endless cycle of buying art for its resale value. Museums should simply be allowed to confiscate real art, set null price on them, and open them to public viewing.

Anonymous says:

4 mil plus for a picture ? only the US Government would be stupid enough to do that, maybe it goes in the Oval Office ?

Anonymous says:

Art pricing has always been very strange to me, but people are always willing to pay what most of us would consider obscene amounts of money to own something widely considered to be an important peice of art.

Anonymous says:

I’m a huge art lover, but I would have a hard time paying that kind of money for a photograph. Especially since my husband is a very talented photographer and his photos are just as inspiring and beautiful as this one is. As they say, it’s all in the eye of the beholder…

Anonymous says:

Is this a joke?

Anonymous says:

I like to look at certain picture, photos, scupltures and whatnot but not enough to pay anything for it. Some of the things that pass for art these days, that get critical attention and accolades as well as big bucks just blows my mind. Sometimes I think that a certain group of people follow the leader so all it takes it one leader to say that a piece of art is worth something and VOILA! instant IT factor. Kind of like the old story “The Emprorers New Clothes”

Anonymous says:

Flexo, As an art lover, I really appreciate art museums and original art. But those prices for a photograph are tough to grasp, it’s from another world than the one I belong to.

Donna Freedman says:

Maybe we should start calling our blog posts “art” and pricing them accordingly….?

Anonymous says:

Art is truly in the eye of the beholder! Ilike a lot of art, but not enough to shell out the rediculous amounts of money for good art.

Anonymous says:

Is there art in digitally manipulating a work?

Anonymous says:

Seeing as how art is a pretty general term, I’ll say I do support some of the arts while others I couldn’t care less about.I’m willing to pay to go to the symphony/orchestra and see the dancing at the cultural festivals. But while my boyfriend loves the ballet and is willing to pay for a painting of the city skyline here(I’ll admit it’s done beautifully), I’m not willing to pay the 4 figure price. Though,I have to say, I am all too happy that there are free art museums here in Cleveland that I will gladly take out of town visitors to!

Anonymous says:

I would view the print as art—-just not 4 million dollar art. At its size, maybe a few thousand dollar art at best. It is mind blowing how we value some “art” over other “art.” It’s in the eye of the beholder, as they always say.