Why Gursky’s Photo of the Rhine is the World’s Most Expensive Photo

The art world was abuzz last week after Andreas Gursky’s photograph Rhein II sold at auction for a ground-breaking $4.3 million. The print may be Plexiglas-mounted, signed, and gigantic (it’s nearly 12 feet wide), but the price had many people scratching their heads. Thankfully, there has been no shortage of articles written since to explain things to uncultured folk who don’t understand the astronomical prices paid for fine art.

Florence Waters at The Telegraph writes,

[…] it could be a long time before a photograph comes along that will top Gursky’s print. This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable – I should say unforgettable – contemporary twist on Germany’s famed genre and favourite theme: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature.

But it is more than that. For all its apparent simplicity, the photograph is a statement of dedication to its craft. The late 1980s, when Gursky shot to attention, was a time when photography was first entering gallery spaces, and photographs were taking their place alongside paintings […] On top of that, Gursky’s images are extraordinary technical accomplishments, which take months to set up in advance, and require a lot of digital doctoring to get just right.

Ken Rockwell writes,

It is valuable because it is art, not just a photo.

Rules are worthless. If he 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. I can’t think of any iconic photo ever created with a digital camera.

Jakob Schiller of Wired writes that big factors are the print’s size and rarity:

Francis Outred, Head of Christie’s Post War and Contemporary Art Department in Europe, says that size and technique also factored in. “Working on an unprecedented scale with outstanding printing techniques and color and grain definition to challenge painting, he has led a group of artists who have re-defined the medium in culture today,” he says.

Another factor appears to be the piece’s rarity. “Of the edition of six, three are in public museums (Moma, Tate, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich), one is with a private museum (Glenstone, Potomac) and only two are left in private collections, of which this is one. In other words this is almost as rare as a one-off painting,” says Outred.

On the other hand, Schiller also notes that a gallery professional he spoke with has “noticed a growing trend where photographers are working hard to re-brand themselves as ‘artists’ so they can sell their pieces in the higher-priced fine art markets that don’t traditionally trade in photography.” The vast majority of readers who commented on our original post seem to agree.

P.S. Regardless of what you think about his work, Gursky seems to be a genuinely likable fellow.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting fact: the price paid for this photo, $4,338,500, was exactly the same price that a 1969 Warhol piece sold for… down to the dollar. (Thanks Josh)

  • HRC

    Rant on — you would all be better off going about the world with your cameras than rambling on insulting each other.

  • Jostein Roalkvam


  • Goofballjones

    I have to also question your use of Ken Rockwell’s statements…about anything. The guy mainly just spouts off inflammatory statements to get page hits, as that’s how he gets his income. He’s not a “pro” photographer, just someone that knows controversy sells.

  • Jostein Roalkvam

    This photo gives me nothing. I might not be an art expert or one with a significant voice, but neither is 99.9999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% of the rest of the worlds population. The photo got sold for that much because of the artist name, and/or because the buyer is going to sell it for profit in the future, to someone who is going to do exactly the same after that, and so it continues. If anything I find the photo depressing.

  • Howard Roark

    I think Schiller is the lone voice of truly objective analysis on the matter. For someone to own a Gursky, of only two that are privately held (not in a museum of any kind), and one which is also displayed in the MoMA, and the Tate is what is establishing this value. I am not impressed by the artistic merit of this piece, and like so many others was scratching my head when the sale first made the news. However, I can see someone buying something incredibly rare for rarity’s sake, and I think that is what this one should be filed under.

    Quick Note: This isn’t to demean Gursky, I actually quite like 99c 1999, this one just doesn’t do it for me though.

  • MadMolecule

    Thanks, Bevan Sauks; that’s exactly what I wanted to know.

  • Andy Glogower

    Oh yes, I get it!  No…wait, I don’t.

  • Commentator

    He has, it was in his school project!

  • abendigo jones

    Say what you want about the value of the art, it doesn’t make the buyer any less of a fool.

  • Bobnelson

    in 50 years he will probably be dead too.

    but you are right. they don’t buy it because they fancy the print, they buy it as an investment. these assholes know this but none of them said it.

  • Blue SkY

    I don’t want to judge art but I feel thousands of hungry kids in Africa could have food with that kind of money.

  • Mark

    Jamal, your the only one who has said anything that has made any sense at all. It must be who the artist is.  Peter Lik shoots digital, he sold a photograph this year for a million dollars does that mean it’s not art?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t understand the angst against worth and value.  This is good news for photography and for photographic artists.  Lets agree on the principal and then agree to disagree on the particulars.  Gursky – Smursky, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is there where two people in a room at one time, both with the where with all and the desire to own this print, for whatever reasons they may have.  Their reasons has nothing to do with it, and it also has nothing to do with the relative merit of this particular piece, because right now, in this moment we can absolutely say, it is worth 4.3 million. What that means to its value as art is not even on the table.  Who cares.  It MEANS the world is big enough and has come to value photography as art enough that these two people could be in the room at the same time.  That’s good news for art, good news for photography and good news especially for photographic artists.  Dollar value does not connote artistic worth.  This corollary only holds true for great art and even then there are many other factors as in any marketplace. 
    The other problem with many arguments here is the false war between photography and painting.  Believe me, I do both and they are different disciplines totally.  They don’t really therefore compete directly with one another.  There will always be painters.  As we’ve heard recently, painting now can be dated back 100,000 years.  I suspect we will always make photographs and film and digital and etc as long as the technological means are there.  All visual, all different.  People are so used to seeing printed and now computer images, they take them for the same as what they represent.  The little thumbnail of this Gursky is not the print and you can’t know what you will think about the print unless you actually are in its presence.  So hang back a little on the negative assessments and look at the positive.  Otherwise this sounds like a lot of sour grapes.

  • Anonymous

    No sour grapes about Gursky’s achievement – good for him!

    But, Mr Rockwell seems to think that because it’s the world’s most expensive photograph, Gursky’s Rhine II should be considered the world’s best photograph. 

    In this respect, he seems to be confusing the monetary value of art with its appeal to the individual. Or perhaps he’s just confused about art in general. 

    For a tech-obsessed photo nerd, yes Gursky’s work is very impressive – belief that the infinite depth of field or lack of distortion makes it appealing, or that because it was shot on film means it was more considered.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m impressed. It’s just that many people probably don’t care for the subject matter, the lack of relevance to them or even something as simple as the colour. Art is subjective. Even when someone else will pay $4m+ for a print. 

    There are probably a million images on Flickr my mum would consider to be better art than Rhine II. It’s not what it sells for (or even if it sells) that makes it great art. It’s in the effect it has on the viewer. The experience someone has when they sit or stand in front of it. 

    Mr Rockwell also asserts that “People don’t think when shooting digital, which renders zillions of meaningless ‘captures’ every minute”. That’s a hefty insult to all us involved in fine art photography who happen to use digital cameras in our creative process. I wonder if he includes himself in that assertion. Or is he the only photographer using digital who thinks?

  • ak1m0t0

    this is proof that having a reputation sells itself. art is simply a point of view. that guy doesnt give a shit what these commentors think, why? HES BANKING! fuck it. in this world u can make money out of virtually anything, that is an art within itself.

  • DAni

    He bullshitted his way into selling this POS to the insanely rich who simply don’t understand art, in my book that’s called winning

  • Robert Ash

    Your point about art is correct. Absolutely. Just a small correction, though. Peter Lik shoots film. According to his website and his gallery sales person I spoke with, he shoots with a Linhof Technorama. But again, your core point about digital photography also qualifying as art is absolutely right.

  • guest

    Well, I’ve heard it said, “If you can’t make it good, make it BIG!”

  • Landscape Photographer

    I can tomorrow go to the same spot and make mosaic stitch, maybe even resulting in a a better work than what Gursky did. Yes, I’m quite confident about my claim. But I’d feel lucky if someone pays a little more than the printing costs :(

    They pay because of his name, life is tough !

  • Abronto4900

     This print was in a private collection; thus the photographer doesn’t realize any income from the sale.  wonder how much this print originally sold for?

  • rich

    i just downloaded it, i am rich.

  • bearcoat

    keep in mind that you are looking at an itty bitty image on a computer screen. I’m sure the 12 foot plexiglass possibly backlit version is radiant

  • Rick Canceler


  • Daniel Norwood

    Peter Lik now also shoots with a Nikon D800E and a PhaseOne IQ280 – at least that’s what his gallery manager is telling people.

    Rockwell may be right (technically) about digital photographs, but his statement is myopic and devoid of any critical thought… it has NOTHING to do with the medium itself other than the fact that digital is still too young. Digital has only been aorund for about 15 years and only in the last few has the resolution and quality been sufficient for high quality artwork. I’m sure someone 100 years ago said something equally ignorant about photography vs painting… Regardless, film or digital, photography is still an art form. It never ceases to amaze me that someone can throw paint on a wall and it’s called art, but people question photography as an art form, as if all it takes is the press of a button. I can only assume these people are not photographers. Just because you has a camera, it doesn’t mean you know a lick about photography – or art.

    Sorry, I know this is an old post, but it’s new to me. :-)