When I read that the world’s most expensive photo had been recently sold at auction for over $4.3million, I was keen to have a good look at it, and find out what exactly makes it so great. My first impression of the photo was that I didn’t like it, not at all really, but then I looked for a couple seconds longer and it began to grow on me, and then grow on me even more, until I couldn’t stop looking at it. It’s not often that this sort of thing happens to me, especially when it’s hard to even distinguish what makes the photo so great in the first place. The photo is called Rhein II and it was taken by Andreas Gursky in 1999.
There are other factors involved in the price, like the prestige of the artist, and the value of their previous work, but I want to look at what makes it so good in the first place. If I could paint a Picasso right now, it wouldn’t be worth nearly as much as the one that Picasso had done, because the value isn’t just in the image, it’s in the significance of the artist too. Andreas Gursky is probably the number one art photographer in the world right now, so his status, combined with the rarity of the print (it’s the largest, and first of only 6 prints), is what made someone spend the money that they did. Is it worth it? The photo is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it, so for the new owner, it was worth it, but for you and I, probably not.
The artist who took the photo is a man called Andreas Gursky, and he’s also had a photo which was ranked the world’s most expensive before, called ’99 Cent’, which was a scene from a supermarket. There were much more visual element to look at in that photo. So Andreas is a very well established photographer, with a history of high prices photos, but I should think that a lot of people looking at this photo are thinking ‘I could take that’, so why so expensive? Firstly, there is a very big difference between ‘I could take that’ and ‘I did take that’, anyone ‘could’, but ‘did’ requires vision. There was the vision to see the image in the first place, and then the further vision to fix it the way he wanted to. Yes, this image, although shot in 1999, has been digitalized and photoshopped. Andreas took out the elements that were bothering him, which left him with this very mesmerizing photo.
The first thing I noticed was that the Gursky has seemingly cut the photo in half with the horizon in the photo, which is typically something I stay away from. Also, the sky isn’t all that interesting, and I probably would have included less of it, but I guess that’s one of the reasons that you look at the photo for so long. It’s also a perfectly straight line, which is uncommon in nature, so perhaps that was one of the elements that he photoshopped.
The photo is lacking any really strong visual weights, and with multiple horizontal lines, the photo looks balanced, with the lines reinforcing the feeling of strength and earth. More than anything, the photo gives me a feeling of being very organized and the fact that the lines extend to the end of the frame, makes it seem as if the lines could go on forever. When you consider that this is in fact a photo of a river, then that becomes a lot more significant. Rivers don’t tend to flow in straight lines, surrounded by even more straight lines, the photographer is making an observation about how he feels about something, but what exactly that is, is up to you to decide. For me, the river has a feeling of life to it, but it’s being constrained by the straight geometric lines, laid out by the modern man. It’s the life and nature of the river, being constrained by the man-made footpath.
The colour looks desaturated as well, which may have been a result of the photoshop, or the film that he was shooting on. The whole photo consists of two main colours, gray and green, which is reminiscent of black and white photography, where only two colours are used. The sequence in which the colours are used are also rather interesting because it’s not that common to see blocks of colour broken up like that (in photography), with no recurring sequence.
Gursky has broken some ‘rules’ of composition in the photo, and he’s done things that I wouldn’t have done, because I don’t see it as good photography in my eyes, but this just goes to show that the rules are made to be broken. Learning composition is one of the most important things you can do to improve your photography, but when you can start to forget about it and start making photos that work for different reasons, then you’re really onto something.
What really sells the photo for me though is that it can’t help but evoke certain feelings when you look at it. Whether it’s a feeling of militant like, repetitive regime, or a feeling a great expansiveness, or perhaps even a feeling of emptiness, the image makes you feel something. Gursky has managed to take a seemingly boring and uninteresting image, and make us think and feel about it in a way that we usually wouldn’t. I’m not saying that you or I couldn’t take that photo, but when it comes to studying the photo, that’s irrelevant. At this level of photography, it’s not about the composition of the photo, it’s about the feelings that evoked, and if those feelings are strong enough for you, and you have the money, then you may have paid $4,338,500 for it too.
What Do You Think?
Leave a comment letting me know what you think makes the photo so great, how it makes you feel, and whether you could ever justify paying that much for a photo? I’m very interested to know what everyone else is thinking.