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Sunday, 23 September 2018


Objects of rarity and significance can naturally become objects of value. What I find ethically and morally objectionable is that the very conditions that created poverty and homelessness then, are alive and well today...

Wouldn't be wonderful if most of the auction proceeds were directed to those whose plight is similar to that pictured?

The answer is no! The value of art has nothing to do with what is depicted. Just visit any museum with a high dollar transacted pieces of art.

Maybe the moral dimension hinges around why there are a small number of people who are able, and willing to pay ridiculous sums for inconsequential things like these, and a large percentage who can't feed themselves?

Great article, Mike.
Very appropriate to these times of politically correct hypocrisy.

From MY POV all street photography is unethical. I violates the tenets of many religions worldwide. It is the height of rudeness to disregard people who do not want their photo taken—Bruce Gilden wannabees are some of the worst offenders.

It makes me uncomfortable, but I think that's the art working rather than an actual ethical lapse.

I might have doubts about an individual spending 6 figures for this when I see beggars by freeway entrances many times a day (beggars used to be a third-world phenomenon, I thought; not any more), but hey, maybe it'll work on them eventually too. Or, maybe they've already given billions to charity but they really like this picture a lot.

There's not much point being morally outraged unless you can come up with a positive idea of how to fix it. You can (and should) be outraged about the bread line and we could all probably think of ways to fix that (though we may not agree on what they are) but how would you fix the problem of the outrageous prices for photographs? What even IS the problem?

Sorry to point out, but you’ve made an error: Rondal Partridge was Imogen Cunningham’s son. I believe he worked as an assistant to Dorothea...

Ironic? You bet. And a statement on our times, I believe.

[Thanks! Fixed. --Mike]

Thanks for keeping TOP up all these years. I've been reading it since its inception.

Do the purchasers of the photo have to divulge the origins of the funds? If not, this market, much like the market for high end paintings, could be rife with laundered funds.

I think there is, or may be, a moral dimension. But if there is one, it is not because it's a picture of poor people, it is because that some people would regard the kind of income inequality involved in the existence of such goods as being immoral. So, if there is such a dimension it is not to do with the picture, or to do with photography in general, but is more general: if it's OK for some goods which only serve to give pleasure to be very expensive (and, in particular, expensive far beyond their production cost), it's OK for prints: they're not a special case, even if they are prints of photographs of poor people who could not possibly afford them.

(Note I have tried to word the above rather carefully so my position on the morality or otherwise of very high levels of income inequality is not implied, because I don't think it's at all relevant (and I won't be drawn on what it is).)

Irony is intuitively understood by most literate, educated people, which all of us are, but let's talk about it anyway.

I'm literate, educated, and am often the smartest-person-in-the-room. Irony, like all those unintended puns, just does not compute. Maybe it's my dyslexia shining through.

I think we have way more than adequate evidence that trying to use government (and what other possibility would there be?) to force equality of outcomes usually leads to disaster. And by disaster, I don't mean annoyances, I mean holocausts.

And if you don't force equality of outcomes (means) how would you regulate how much art is worth? I mean, how much *is* art worth? Nothing? If it's worth something, then it's going to be worth more to some people than to others. If it's not amazing that people would pay $100,000 for a car, why is it amazing that they should pay that much for art?

There may be a moral problem with *excessive* differences of outcomes, something that could be fixed in the U.S. with a proper arrangement of federal estate and gift taxes. Doesn't seem likely though, given that monied people seem to run all of our political parties.

Ethics: always an interesting and difficult topic.

I don't think that irony and morality are necessarily on the same axis. That is, as irony increases, I don't think you get closer to immorality.

There are at least two things going on here. One is the act of making the photograph itself (one committed by a woman, long dead, of a man, also long-dead). The second is the present tense sale of that picture for an ironically large sum of money, given its subject matter.

I think for it to be immoral, someone would have to be exploited or to suffer harm as a result of its being made. Or to look at it another way (and as long as we're doing definitions), Merriam-Webster defines "immoral" as "conflicting with generally or traditionally held moral principles." It is possible to imagine that sort of image being made, but I don't think that this one is it. I think you'd have to define which moral principle was in conflict here to continue that conversation.

In that vein, I would like to respectfully disagree with e.d. embry above. I understand that being photographed in a public space might make the subject uncomfortable. But none of us -- at least in the U.S. -- has the right to public invisibility. All that camera is doing is capturing the photons that are zooming off in the direction of a lens. Now, I draw a distinction between not having a right to the photons and feeling a sense of personal threat from imminent physical contact. That's the "assault" of "assault and battery," and it is (and has long been, in the U.S.) a crime.

One could say that the picture exists for us just to question our moral levels. The fact that it has been gilded as an expensive work of art is a separate issue of provenance.

It should be noted that what was purchased was an object, namely a photographic print. An object with a storied history, made by a master.

The transaction has nothing to do with breadlines. It exists outside of the ethical framework of alleviating poverty, just as the purchase of Picasso's Guernica, or prints of it from the museum's gift shop, have to do with eliminating war.

If you are taking a census on the question: I say yes it is immoral. Beyond that the discussion becomes very (I would say hopelessly but that is too sad) complex on many levels.

I have no interest in forcing equality of outcomes. On the other hand, I also don't much approve of letting a few people game the system to create wealth disparity at 2 or more orders of magnitude, either. I wouldn't control art prices, but I might want to do something about executive compensation.

Lets not overlook the real human significance of Lange's photographs.

White Angel Breadline.

It was during the depth of the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 30s, when at least 14 million people were out of work in the USA, that Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965) first ventured out on the streets with her camera. In 1935 a report on migrant workers, illustrated with Lange's photographs, came to the attention of Roy Stryker and in response he invited Lange to become a member of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic unit. Like Stryker, Lange believed that photography was a tool of political action, and this was no more apparent then when the federal government responded to the starvation crisis shortly after the San Francisco News received Lange's photographs - it quickly supplied 20,000 pounds of food to feed hungry migrants at the camps.

Dorothea Lange by Mark Durden

In 2016, Mike wrote about Elton John's photographic collection. In that post is a YouTube piece by Mr. John and beginning at 1:08 we see and he discusses Migrant Mother and other Dorothea Lange photographs.


It is only a piece of paper with some ink on it that is sold.
The picture itself is still available for all to see.

It would be different if the photographer would have taken the film from the camera and sold it to this new owner. In that case this pic would hang on his wall and nobody, other than the owner and her of his guest, would ever see this photograph.
Only in a very hypothetical sense this would be problem, maybe a moral problem. Because we would all miss a testament of time.
But that is not the case.

This copy of that photograph is available. So we all can form an opinion on it, as a work of art, as an indictment against poverty, as.....

I thought the irony was people looking at this man's empty life while unaware of the emptiness of their own lives.

This print is a fundamentally important part of our history as a country and fundamentally important as a precursor to Lange's FSA work. It needs to be in a museum, accessible to all people, no matter what their financial means, for at most a modest entry fee. Selling this off for $100k or more just insures it will be locked away in a vault some place. Donating proceeds to charity would not change this statement. Recognize also that Lange's estate sees not a penny from this sale -- it all goes to whatever (likely) speculator bought it up and now seeks to prosper by releasing it to auction.

David Dyer-Bennet wrote:

"I might have doubts about an individual spending 6 figures for this when I see beggars by freeway entrances many times a day . . ."

Well, we've got brand new vans dropping off these "beggars" at each shift change. Tax free money from the people who are taken in by the posterboard signs filled with pathos.

I've never given money to any of them. There are plenty of programs to help the less fortunate.

One fast food manager offered a "beggar" a job, but he refused the offer.

Sidestepping the moral dilemma for a moment, Geoff Dyer has a great discussion of this image in his book "The Ongoing Moment", centering particularly on the man's battered hat. I can't quote it all here but you can find a sample of his argument at this blog post: https://emilybooks.wordpress.com/2010/03/25/the-mad-hatter-hanging-on-to-his-hat/

Some guy with $5 billion thinks there's excessive wealth inequality when another guy has $100 billion.

Duplicate prints could conceivably be made, from the negative which must be held in in safe storage somewhere. Is the age of this particular print the decisive factor, in its valuation at over $100,000?

[As a very, very rough estimate, modern prints might be worth ~1/10th of what vintage prints go for. That varies a lot, but that's in the general area of "typical." The provenance of a great many prints is pretty specific to each photographer, image, and print. --Mike]

When I look at the man in the picture I don’t make bets about his life. There’s what the photographer put into the picture to make him represent the Great Depression, and from what we know about that period, there’s what we read into the picture. I don’t find much in there about That man, and in fact, were we able to make out more individuality there might be less of “Every Man Enduring”.

The print might sell for big money. But there are many people and processes involved in getting the picture sold. That means there are lots of jobs dependent, lots of various kinds of incomes to be generated, and lots of PR surrounding the high ticket items, which will encourage more business. The various levels of gov’t should get their cuts that will be turned back into the economy or into services. Probably other people here know more economics and about the trade than I do and can add to the list of effects.

The really expensive private stuff the public often gets to see and learn about thru publications, reproductions, and public exhibition loans. These are possible only with the generosity of private owners. And when the kids want to unload all of those dusty and boring fossils the old folks collected, a good number end up in public collections. Also realize that public collections, in addition to their current holdings, probably couldn’t maintain all of the significant art out there in private hands even if it all was left in the doorways.

The bundle that the new owner pays for the print is only one consideration, and there’s not all bad in this system. Not enough to feel much guilt about anyway.

People earn what they earn; they inherit what their folks earned and were able to leave; who cares - it's their money or property or whatever, not ours. I hate all this envy dressed up as altruism, as faux social "justice" that, at root, simply wants to punish success and people more smart than ourselves.

A snap is a snap and remains one no matter how large it gets printed or who shot it; if some other person finds a compelling reason to consider it of special value to himself, cool, let the seller reap the reward, which may be the last time the snap is rated as having that high a level of value. Justice as in divine.

It's just another rich man's game, so let 'em play; they don't affect you with their amusement.

The most familiar form of irony is sarcasm, whereby you say the opposite of what you mean.

Best use of sarcasm ever is Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons...

"Oh, a sarcasm detector. That's a good idea".

"Moral dimension . . . wealth inequality" - No, it's a photograph of men in a breadline during the Depression , a period when most Americans were affected by the downturn and many lost great wealth. That a vintage "White Angel" print will be sold at auction for a lot of money should not - though it does for some commenters here - present another occasion to use the tiresome and shopworn phrase "wealth inequality" .

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