We have a new winner in the "$12 Million Shark Sweepstakes." In a smackdown of the piker owner of the paltry $3.89 million Cindy Sherman picture (I kid) that held the record for mere months (since May), a German collector sold one of six copies of Andreas Gursky's 1999 work "Rhein II" at Christie's yesterday for $4,338,500 (including buyer's premium).
And by the way, it's a Photoshopped pic—there were elements in the scene Gursky didn't like, so, in his words, "I decided to digitalize the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me."* (A. Gursky quoted in A. Ltgens, "Shrines and Ornaments: A Look into the Display Cabinet," Andreas Gursky: Fotografien 1994–1998, p. xvi). "Like the painter, Gursky constructs his composition, removing all small arbitrary details interrupting his clean horizon." (Peter Galassi, MoMA.)
It's now the most expensive photograph ever. Of course, the clock is ticking—for how many months will this record last? Be afraid, Herr G., be very afraid....
—Mike, who's definitely in the wrong end of this business
(Thanks to Howard French)
*Cf. "This Bothers Me" by Yr. Hmbl. Ed.
P.S. As far as I know, this is a sale on the secondary market, i.e., the only one who profits is the previous owner, not the photographer/artist—as Darko Hristov pointed out in the Comments. That is, unless the "German collector" cited by the auction house as the previous owner actually is the photographer or someone related or connected to him. One reader speculated that the seller might be the artist's ex-girlfriend (they broke up last year).
As one commenter pointed out, an Andreas Gursky photograph has held the mantle of "world's most expensive photograph" before, although it was a different work ("99 Cent," also from 1999).
P.P.S. Sometimes I do wonder if the art market's lack of discrimination regarding Photoshop is actually an indicator of a lack of sophistication...given the commonplace pretense to high sophistication in those circles, even such a suggestion alone might be considered obnoxious; yet it might still be true. They do tend to be impressed by confabulated artworks that only look like photographs but aren't. It's a sort of false power, similar to, I don't know, maybe similar to being fooled by lip-synching at a supposedly "live" concert or something.
Although I will say I like and appreciate almost all of Gursky, in a kind of even-toned, medium-level way. My appreciation never rises to the level of love but seldom falls below the level of moderate enjoyment and appreciation. I'm acutely conscious of never having seen originals, though, and I'm quite prepared to potentially completely overhaul my previous estimations once I do....
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jenny: "The level to which I don't understand things has been brought to a record height."
Featured Comment by Jeff: "Time for a photo interpretation question. Can somebody explain to me what makes this a $4.3M photo and not a random snapshot that I wouldn't have even printed. I don't get it."
Mike replies: Sure—status plus rarity. Status: Gursky is the #1 art photographer in the world right now, by rough consensus of the experts—experts in this case meaning gallery owners, museum curators, major collectors, art critics, and academic scholars of contemporary photography. Rarity: This is #1 of the edition of six, larger than the other five. At least four of the others are in major public collections—the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich; Tate Modern, London; and the Glenstone Collection, Potomac, Maryland (I don't know where the fifth one is). And at least two people whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars wanted one for their own photograph collection. Q.E.D.
Re that last, I might append "wealth inequality" to the equation of "status + rarity," but that would be controversial, and we all know that I am never a controversialist. [g, or, as we used to write on CompuServe, "g,d&r"—"grin, duck and run."]
Featured Comment by Jeff Damron: "I see what I've been doing wrong now—I've been putting subjects in my pictures."
Featured Comment by njwv: "While the "is it worth it" is always debatable, it's at least worth mentioning that this is a 6ft x12ft print. Not everyone has seen a Gursky in person and it's impossible to get a sense for a print that size on the web."
Mike replies: Good point, and sorry, I meant to mention that. The image area is 73x143 inches, and overall the piece is 81x151x2 inches. On the other hand, it's a chromogenic print, meaning it's of questionable longevity, and it's "face-mounted to Plexiglas," which is questionable from a conservation standpoint.
Featured Comment by david wen riccardi-zhu: "I like it. A lot. I like much of Gursky's work; elements of his aesthetics appeal to my personality. I like the rigidity, purity, and stoicism it evokes. It is a kind of conceptualization; a very bare way to approach the idea of a river. Minimalistic, brief, concise. I would dislike a more romantic approach, although there is still some feeling in the photograph. At least, that's what I see. Some of us like naturalism, others prefer abstraction.
"That said, I don't have to think of this as a photograph. That term I maybe do reserve for an image which strives for more fidelity to reality (whatever that is). If one wants to label this as a sort of digital painting, that's fine by me. I don't let labels interfere with my enjoyment of a work.
"As for the money, it is, in my opinion, ridiculous. I think artists do deserve compensation for their work—it is a tough, competitive profession, and one that requires much dedication. That said, it is difficult to understand the obsession of making art into a sort of luxury, when the majority struggle to make a living, if not to survive. There is something perverse about money being spent in this way."
Featured Comment by Will Whitaker: "Gursky who?? Nevermind."
Featured Comment by Tom: "Sooo.... $290 wasn't the highest price ever?"
Featured Comment by christian: "I find all this extremely liberating—reinforcing my conviction that I can do my photo work the way I like it. That any comments about how I use and do film, digital, and post-processing are just that—comments, that are probably totally irrelevant."
Featured Comment by The Lazy Aussie: "I quite like it. Not $4 million like, but yeah."
Featured Comment by Marc D: "While I agree on the general ridiculousness of the price paid, I do like the picture very much.
"I remember seeing it in person years ago in Munich before my passion for photography reignited. I had no idea who Gursky was or knew anything about art photography at the time. Yet I saw the print and was awestruck. That picture is definitely an iconic image for me and has stayed with me over the years. Just seeing the tiny image here took me right back to that moment. And I don’t even like big prints, in general.
"So while I can absolutely understand that the picture is not for everybody, I strongly disagree on dismissing it so out of hand.
"Also, I always think it’s good when a photograph (digitally manipulated no less) makes so much money in the art market. This can only be a positive development for photography being recognized as a serious art form, doesn't it? Why leave all the money to the sharks?"
Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "One issue is that money means different things to different people. If you're an everyday middle-aged joe like me with a day job, then you probably now and then spend a buck or so on a chocolate bar. You don't think anything of it, it's only a buck. To some people on earth, of course, the luxury of being able to thoughtlessly spend a buck on candy is unimaginable. What if you had so much money that you could spend $4.3 million as easily as I spend a buck? It sounds like a lot of money, but maybe it isn't to the guy who spent it."