The Most Expensive (but not necessarily best) Photos in the World!

So first of all, the idea of “expensive” “art” bothers me from the outset. As I’ve written about in a previous post that shall not be named because I’ve named it too many dern times already, I’m not personally of the opinion that art should cost anything. Yes, I know, this makes me a communist and a hippie, but fine. I’ll deal with that in the afterlife should the universe choose to participate in such a thing. However, when our good friends over at Zorgor asked me, “Hey! What do you think about the most expensive photos ever?!” I knew I had to tackle the topic because if anyone’s going to fly in the face of standard thinking on a topic, I have to be first in line. OK, 85,674,675th in line, but who’s counting…

OK (add my best boxing announcer voice here), weighing in at $4.3 million dollars, the most expensive photo in the universe is…. Rheeeeeeeeeeeeein Twoooooooooo….. (crowd goes wild).

Rhein II
Rhein II

OK. Seriously? Come on. So it does have some things going for it. Bold horizontal lines with good layering and those layers appear to be absolutely pristinely even throughout. Not bad. If I’d taken this photo though I’m not sure it would have even made it into a blog post. It’s almost mechanical in nature. Then if you read the fine print and realize, “Extraneous details such as dog-walkers and a factory building were removed by the artist via digital editing” then I just have to make an incredulous expression and walk away. To foray into the vernacular momentarily: WTH? Or, to quote my first reaction to Zorgor, “Garbage.” That was a bit strong, but to my apparently not adequately trained eye, this photo just isn’t… Primary among those “isnts” is that it isn’t worth 4.3 million anything. Worth buying? Maybe. But not at that price.

Moving on we have the second most expensive photo, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96.

Untitled #96
A few good things to say here: interesting choices in color. The photo is supposed to represent the artist as a lovelorn young woman and the colors echo that. Chromatic repetition goes well with the feeling of emotional vacuum which I’m sure the artist felt at the time. Point of primary visual interest is the scrap of paper (the personals column) and it’s well placed. Patterns on the skirt and the tiles echo each other and she’s flushed as if she’s distraught or ‘windburned’ by the onslaught what she’s been through. On balance a nice photo. All that said, the idea that it’s a multi-million dollar photo kills me. The model’s expression is… well, unfortunate. She’s modeling, not feeling. The fact alone that it’s a posed photo destroys most of the appeal for me. Real life trumps acting any day. There are plenty of real lovelorn women in the world. Surely one would be willing to have their photo taken for a million bucks. Perhaps they wouldn’t be so lovelorn?

Number three, as of this writing, is 99 Cent II Diptychon.

99 Cent II, Diptychon
99 Cent II, Diptychon

Like the previous contender, lots to recommend this photo. Immaculate detail with lots of color; an interesting shot. But again, is it a multi-million dollar shot? Again, it’s staged and again, it’s digitally modified. For the things it has going for it, it’s not real. It’s a sad and lonely echo of some reality somewhere that never really existed as we see it in the photo.

Alright, well enough libelous criticism. After writing all this out… well, honestly…? I’m just rather sad. I see these works and I can’t help but say that yes, these are all great photos, but are they any better than the other billion photos that are taken every single day? How much of these photographer’s success is derived from the fact that they have the money to print out 100-foot long prints of their photos and put them up for sale? What could this blogger do with their photos if they had a million bucks to print and promote their work? Or this one? Or this one? Or this one? Or this one? The plain and simple truth is that there are tens of thousands of people out there who are creating great work in the field.  It breaks my heart to think that newcomers in photography are looking up at Rhein II and thinking, “I need to take pictures like that!  Let me just take this picture I took and edit out some of the reality.”  Sad, sad, sad.  Oh well.  Such as it is.

What say you? Am I ranting or am I right? (or maybe both?  but definitely at least ranting.)


  1. I really, really like the photo. And i believe it is huge, in a way that a web post can do justice to it. Is it meaningful that it went for so much money? No. But if the art market is to pick certain photos to canonize, at least in this case they picked an interesting and provocative one.

    The day I heard about it, I did this:
    1:100000 scale (after Gursky 1/43)

  2. Alright, well point taken that you can’t really do it justice in such a small format. Perhaps it would be much more evocative if we could all see it in all its grandiose detail. I’d still be perturbed, however, by the omissions done electronically no matter how grandiose it is, but that’s just my overly purist value system in play. 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by!

    PS: How takers did your “1:100000 scale (after Gursky 1/43)” attract?
    PPS: Your idea of giving it away for a $43 donation to a charity works for me. Good stuff!

  3. You really have a thing or two to learn about artphotography if I may say so.
    I just started blogging, but Im going to make a tutorial any day now about certain aspects of photography. There I will also recommend some books, fortunately for you, most of them will be about artphotography in modern time.

    Later Rob.


    • Well, of THAT I have no doubt. I’m in no way denying that I have a fairly strict sense of right and wrong when it comes to art and photography in general. I’m all for painting and creation of new images but when that starts to bleed over into capturing of images photographically then it starts to leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. So agreed, I do have a lot to learn and perhaps that change my sense of aesthetics. Who knows? I’m not particularly expecting that to happen, but it’s certainly possible.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  4. As someone who is interesting in abstract/contemporary photography, I really can appreciate Gursky’s work. A lot. I really like Rhein II. It catches me in the simple way, and I can see his artistic vision in it. I love the lines and the layers and the textures. And I’d love to see that large. His works are a lot like paintings, not just photography of catching what you see, and that has an appeal that a lot of photography doesn’t (I was talking to a gallery owner about this on Friday, as Zorgor asked me the same question).

    And I love that people pay for art! I hope someday to get good enough that i can sell my photography as art. Artists have to make money to live on also. But that much money for a piece of art. I’m not sure (but freedom is everything). There is so much money in art and it can be pretentious and not about the work, but about the artist and the status, etc., so a complicated subject.

    And I know, Rob, that you hate that he altered his image, but he had too, or else there wouldn’t be the image he had in his eye. His work is about art and his vision, and I think it’s wonderful.

    I like Cindy Sherman’s work too. But for my taste, Gursky is more my liking.

    Very thought provoking post, Rob. 🙂

    • It probably wouldn`t hurt you Katie! To also keep an eye on my blog, I see you also need a lesson or two about art photography. Dont mean to sound harsh of course, just trying to be helpful.

      • Um, prophotoz, it’s fine if you want to come and take issue with my opinions, but don’t criticize my guests. As for your blog, so far I’ve only been able to assume it’s a humor blog? I’m hopeful that nobody can honestly be as narcissistic as you seem to portray yourself.

      • Thanks, Rob. I found a new prophotoz wordpress site, and his first post does sound like it’s supposed to be humor, or at least I hope so. Maybe it’s not this person though. I’m not sure on that.

      • Heh. Yeah, it’s him. If you click the name ‘prophotoz’ in the comment thread here you’ll get that new wordpress site. High humor, one hopes. Either that or we all need much more expensive equipment. 🙂

      • Heh, yes, he can teach us about how to photograph using very best expensive equipment and we can teach him a few lessons about getting along with others withing coming across such a nitwit. 🙂

    • Alright, well I can see your argument. I think Zorgor covers it well in an email he just sent me 5 minutes ago. We need more divisions of photography to help define the various ‘buckets’ into which various methods go (or more correctly, I just need more of an appreciation for what the buckets are). I guess that for me I can appreciate a thing more if I can categorize it properly. My bucket (whatever you would call it) seems like the “right” bucket to me just because I’m the one viewing it. Clearly, all the buckets from abstract to the literal have value but because of my rather limited exposure to other work, I have difficulty assimilating those buckets of work with which I’m most loosely connected. So yeah, long winded way of admitting that I’m just being naive here in many ways. Part of the reasoning for putting up a controversial blog post is to be corrected by the masses, so I appreciate the correction. 🙂

      As for the money thing…. yeah, it’s funny because in general I want art to be free, but if you personalize it and say, “Should Katie be able to make a living selling art?” I think, “well, sure!” So it’s tough. I think to a large extent my rant about money is really an annoyance around what I consider the ‘factory’ photographers who put their subjects in the same rote poses over and over. They sit their subjects on a plastic log and snap their photos. That’s just a terrific and terrible shame to me. It’s rather a farce on real life. If, on the contrary, I imagine someone getting paid for an artistic work, I’m much less vehement about it.

      So in summary, yeah, I need to get over myself. I get that. Thanks for helping! 🙂

      • Love the bucket comment, Rob. 🙂 It is all a learning thing isn’t it? Being self taught, I know that so much. I feel really dumb sometimes when it comes to what I don’t know and feel that I should. I like to keep an open mind on things, though, and I can appreciate your opinion, as I’ve felt the same thing at times too.

        I totally understand your take about the “factory” photographers. I agree with that. I want to see some individuality in photos (you have that in yours). I want to see the photographer’s eye. I do shake my head sometimes at what’s being sold as good photography. But then if the person can sell it, then good for them. I’m still trying to get to that point with my creative photography (my architectural work I can sell 🙂 ), and figuring out what direction to go (that I want to go).

        So much to learn. 🙂 Take care, Rob!

      • Oh, and don’t get over yourself. 🙂 It’s fun to have opinions, and it’s great to be open to other opinions too. Strong personalities have strong opinions. Have a great day, Rob!

    • Yes, I’d been thinking WTF about these photos for a while when I suddenly realized that I am surrounded by awesome photographers in my little corner of the blogosphere. So yes, guilty as charged, I asked you, KatiesCameraBlog, and Jim at DownTheRoad the same questions within the same 5 minutes! Ain’t the internets awesome!
      So if any of the three of you ever sell a photo for $4.3 million — assuming Rob can ever bring himself to contend for such — I’ll pipe right down. 🙂

      • Heh. It has been deliriously delightful to me just how much of a community there is on this place. No doubt about it, there are some amazing writers/artists/photographers wandering around wordpress and most of them more or less completely unknown to the outside world.

  5. As a budy and I often used to say, there’s no accounting for taste. I see nothing in those photos that would merit such high prices, but then again, I am the oddball. I am mostly a nature photographer, who believes that if you digitally manipulate photos, they are no longer nature photos. Whether they are art or not is another question, either my way or the digitally manipulated photos.

    As far as selling art, I have no problem with htat, every one is entitled to be paid what ever the market will bear for their work, be it photography, painting, or sculpting. No one should work for free just because they chose to make art rather than autos.

    • Yeah, I’m starting to see the argument either way as far as paying for art. Either way it’s supply and demand. If people are willing to pay for it, then so be it. It is funny though that somehow my value system says it’s OK to sell a work of writing but has more of a problem with it if it’s a photograph. Perhaps because in my definition of ‘photography’ the picture is already there, lurking in nature, but the photographer merely captures it?

      • I’m not sure photography is art, other than people say it is. To me, the art in my photos is getting as close to critters as I do, and knowing where to go to capture the landscape photos. Any one could do it, but few people do, and if those who don’t want to call what I do art, that’s OK by me.

      • That’s true, QSP, there’s definitely a lot of artistry in that sort of hunting. So it’s art to me; you do good work. I think that’s more than sufficient. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Fascinating discussion.
    I have had absolutely zero takes for my gurskyesque. It is pretty rough though. I’ll rebuild it when I get a better cam this week. Then I’ll write a post on my blog about the Gursky, referring to this thread and linking back to here, and see if I can get any takers.

    BTW I don’t think it is a humour site.

    • Hrm. Well, your offer has given me an idea. I’m pondering making your idea a monthly feature. I’d offer $50 to a charity of the photographer’s choice in exchange for a print of their “best representative shot” in 8×10 or better. It’d certainly be one way to decorate my walls. 🙂 Think you’d be game? Doesn’t have to be the Gursky as I’m guessing you have an existing shot you like better?

  7. all of these photographs really capture my imationation and each takes me to a different place of wonder and emotion. But are you for real? These three photographs sold at the highest prices on record? I would have thought that distinction would be saved for more rare works, film photography. Or it’s possible that you were referring only to digital photography. Not really sure. My knowledge base is too narrow to participate much in this discussion, but I do appreciate the topic 🙂

  8. Well I am one of the skeptics and Rob kindly linked to my views in his post. It is a good debate and I have no issue with paying for photography. I have bought photographs myself, always strangely B&W. However if you look at some of the greats of the past and mentally adjust for what the average Joe or Jane can do today with their mini-pc masquerading as a point and shoot, it still comes down to being able to see the image at the moment you press the shutter. There are certainly many different genres but composition, creativity, vision, whatever you will, can all contribute to a work’s quality but monetary cost can’t. It’s one person’s decision to pay silly money for a very ordinary, albeit grand scale, picture. If you took the name away, posted it in Flickr at a reduced size and waited for the response…… My guess is it would get precious little. Or perhaps I need lessons in art appreciation too.

    • Yeah, I think… that in a way perhaps the art is evolving more quickly than the aesthetics around it? So we’re just behind a bit? At this point I’m mentally transitioning myself and really don’t know what to think. 🙂 At any rate, it’s an interesting topic. We all may look back on this in 20 years and think we were nuts. At any rate, thanks for stopping by.

  9. You know, I’m warming up to the Cindy Sherman. The colors and patterns, as you mentioned. Not that that makes the price tag any less ludicrous and unbelievable. I read that it’s a self portrait, so the model is the artist, if that effects your thoughts on that at all. I’m on the fence with Rhein II, really on the fence. I mean *only* when I disregard what was paid for it… That knocks me right off and 20 miles away from the fence. And while I am genuinely glad that you do, I can see really nothing aesthetically pleasing at all in 99 cent… Just my opinion.

    Great post Rob! And you and Katie have answered my questions about this in spades!

    • Yeah, I get what you’re saying. It’s one thing to that something is a “great photo” but when you bring money into it and say that X photo is 500,000 times better than Y photo. Jeeze. It’s just nutty. At any rate, I’m glad the thread has been so helpful and prolific. Think we’re up to 36 comments. Yeep!

  10. Rob,
    i have to go with you on this one, if you can earn a living out of photography fine, if some one is fool enough to pay that for a photo that I could take on an afternoon out with the dog and a compact camera they must have more money than sense. take their money, but do not let the ‘art’ world run away with the idea that Andreas Gursky is something special as a photographer. I have looked at some of his pictures and I can assure you that there are any number of photographers blogging that can match his pictures and many I would think are better. It is a subjective point of course.
    Like the picture of the church yard.

    • Yeah, that seems to be the main theme here. It is all so, so terribly subjective. Unfortunately, a lot of this is difficult to really get a good sense for online. You can’t really appropriately judge a 100ft long photograph on even a 24inch screen. So yeah I’m just a bit personally befuddled by the whole thing. Like much of the art world, it may be time to just agree to disagree and move on. Fools and their money are soon parted.

  11. Honestly, I love the first picture. it might be the mechanical feel to it. But i wouldn’t pay 4.3 million for it. I doubt there is anything i would be comfortable shelling out that much for, even if I had that kind of money to be throwing around.
    But still, I would buy a cheap reprint for my wall. It’s blank and could use some adornments.

    • Hrm. It’s interesting that you go back to the mechanical … if I think about it long and hard enough (and trust me, this post has rolled around in my head since the first response) maybe I can get behind the irony of the mechanical/natural aspects of it a bit. Still though, wouldn’t be my first choice even for a cheap reprint. That said, I’m glad it’s evocative for you and apparently a lot of others. In the end, if it appeals and makes you feel good about it, I’m the last person to argue you out of it.

  12. There is art, and there is artsy-fartsy. Artsy-fartsy is what’s wrong with the snob-appeal aspects of the art world. These hyped-up prices make these images artsy-fartsy.

    A lot of needy people could have been fed or treated with needed medicine with the money that was blown here. I can only hope that some real good has been done with the money after the sales.

    By the way, I’m both an artist and a Capitalist. This; however, irritates me to no end.

    • Yeah, I’ll admit that I’m fairly anti-capitalist in this regard. I think that on some level it’s just my poor way of looking at it. If by accepting some modest payment it would enable me to create more art or help a worthy cause then I suspect I’d come around to it.

  13. The art world is corrupt. Prices for paintings are ridiculous. Its a con game. and it is promoted by people who make a lot of money… pretending that its all part of some elite world. In my younger days I used to sell jewelry on the street. A guy in the next table to me sold this Egyptian junk. (His words. He was Egyptian.) He used to charge $5 for a bracelet. And couldn’t sell a thing. What did he do? He raised his prices to $50 a bracelet. They moved like hotcakes. People want to join the ‘elite’. Especially if all they have to do is spend money. The more money you spend, the less people there are in the club.

    • ha! that’s a great story! Since I give away my services for free, it has occurred to me that I don’t get… well, any business at all, because of price perception. People don’t want something that’s free. Perhaps if I charged $50 then people would actually want their pictures taken! Rather a sad state of affairs really.

  14. Art? Fart! Wind. Exhaust.

    Money!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Love lost.

    Where you find such obscene numbers finance rules. And finance is not art.

    But of course it is, squeezing the last drop of money from a dead thing, the manipulation of numbers and apparent value, is the one true art today.

    Wouldn’t a nice warm nuclear wind be refreshing? A fresh start? It can only happen for economics – of whatever. Some hard learned value for the few survivors, the nature we nearly lost – to finance, greed, the condition of todays Man. Man, art, what an a**hole.

    Can you walk in the field without a thought interrupting the sense, consciously? That’s art, the art of arts. Not a penny to be seen. No observer to applaud. No laurels to sit on.

    Just the knowledge; to surrender to a value outside of the sense of love, or the love of sense, is living death.

    Oops! Did I take a wrong turn? 🙂

  15. Well, I’m only in a high school advanced digital photography class, but the things that I see are: Lack of the use of the rule of thirds, lack of a focal point save maybe the second, and in general, a lack of creativity (once again, save the second). My problem with the second is that the focal point is on the right of the picture, but with the whole body to the left, you get distracted before getting to the main focus of the picture. Not saying that I could do better, but from what I have learned about photography, a lot of people could.

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