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)

  • Anonymous

    Whatever.  I don’t really buy the explanation.  I wouldn’t buy that print at all.

  • Shark

    craziness. I wish I could sell a photo for 10% of that.

  • Aguest

    Aw come on! That’s just rubbish! “I can’t think of any iconic photo ever created with a digital camera.” that’s bullshit … -_-

  • Ed Hoover

    “if it’s not captured on film, it is not art”? Bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

    As a journalism professor of mine once said, You can say it’s crap, but you can’t say it’s not art. Who gives a crap what the medium is – digital or analog, art is art. Just because something is digital doesn’t mean it’s not art.

    Rockwell is wrong, wrong, wrong.

  • juice

    Sorry, but quoting Rockwell? It’s the photographic equivalent of doing research by looking at Wikipedia.

  • vladimir byazrov

    Resuming what they said: they don’t funking know why the heck this photo costs so much. it’s crazy that something that could be duplicated million times would cost as much.
    The only one legit explanation I can give is that the every valuable artwork in the world is already sold to some one, but demand for small expensive objects to invest money in is growing enormously. So people are now look closely at photography as the next possible investment tool. 

  • Anonymous

    Rockwells response is bullshit. Just because something “iconic” has never been captured digitally (doubtful), that doesn’t mean the medium is crap. That just means that you’re a pretentious tool. 

  • Pat

    “if it’s not captured on film, it is not art.” A little pretentious, I’d say! So those who shoot digitally are automatically disregarded as artists? Here I thought it was all about the execution and direction of the art piece and not about the tool that was used? /rant.

  • Guest

    Everybody knows that Ken Rockwell is a moron. Those words just prove it more.

  • Justin

    Rockwell is like bad advertising. It’s terrible and baseless and if we could just ignore it, it’d disappear – but somehow we are captivated by bullshit.

  • Jamal

    I sold art photography prints for more than 3000 dollars before, this print’s price has nothing to do with the photo itself because anyone can take a shot similar to this one , the reason of the high price is the great name of the photographer himself ,, thanks

  • Elem

    The Rockwell is a bit too much though …

  • Phillip Reed

    “I can’t think of any iconic photo ever created with a digital camera.”

    Perhaps that’s because it takes years before a photograph can be considered “iconic”, and digital photography hasn’t been around that long. 

    However, I do agree with Rockwell’s comment about ‘breaking the rules’.

  • Jamal

    one more thing ! Ken Rockwell ,, stick to cameras and lenses reviews because i see no art in your work !

  • Guest from Earth

    I still think they bought it because of his name.

  • Flgraphics

    there is absolutely nothing “vibrant, beautiful and memorable” about this image


  • Yes

    everything about this is full of shit. fine art my ass.

  • Sebi Meyer

    The correct response to that journalist who said photography is only art when it is captured on film is this: I am not listening to you because you are not a real journalist. Real journalists work at newspapers.

  • Kgraceart

    Okay, well, there’s hope for me yet.  This is quite astounding – the sale I mean.  

  • juice

    The “real journalists work at newspapers” comment is as stupid as “art is only captured on film” comment. Nicely matched.

  • Kgraceart

    Oh yeah, and Ken, what an idiotic statement.  Perhaps you may remember that your medium wasn’t considered real art either.  Nor was acrylic paint.  And watercolor artists.  And well, exactly how does one medium outweigh another when something is created.  

  • Mahax

    it was an auction with people absolutely full of them selves

  • The Junior

    OK…even thought the price is absofuckinglutely ridiculous, and the follow up commentary by the “experts” who are only trying to sound intelligent to stroke their online ego and only end up sounding like complete idiots…

    The more I look at the picture I do like the diminishing thickness of the grey lines (although not being an “artist” I would have made the bottom section of grass about the same thickness as the top grey for symmetry)…  Although I’m an engineer and what do we know about art…  So, I appreciate the picture and it gives me some ideas for my own photography challenges…

    But still the price and the follow up explanations about why are just another example of the reviewers trying to be like and kissing up to the 1%…haha….I crap my scheisse up…

  • Serhan

    this is not a good image by any standard, printing it 12 feet wide, someone paying 5 million dollars or some comments by art lords!  will not make this a really valuable photograph as well. although this is taken on film, its been scanned to a digital frame and digitally altered (heavily):  The buildings and trees on the far side of the river are removed.. the photographer says: this is minimal image is his favorite, and this photo describes “the life” (life i.e. a constantly running river?). This image is cold, flat, dull, modified, revokes no feelings at all; and … is this life?  This may be what life means to a man living in a boring  german town (but driving a hot italian car!!!) .. but no .. Life is water, air, earth, fire, its warm, exciting, full of light, feelings (love, hatred), color (including b&w) , perspective, .. and yes it has some philosophy built in (the water you see on a running river is never the same, everything changes)…. its hard but there for you to enjoy..   

  • MadMolecule

    OK, I can understand most of the arguments put forward here.  I don’t much agree with them, but I at least understand where they’re coming from.  

    But how do these photos “take months to set up in advance”?  Can someone shine some light on this?

  • MadMolecule

    To be clear:  I meant I don’t agree with the arguments put forth as to why the photo costs so much.  

  • Serhan

    the artist gives much importance to take similar photos for ages.. parallel  or converging lines, little or no perspective usually flat, broad angle of view, either no humans or cramped with humans (or objects).. so he has acquired a personal style. When you see a huge photo hanging  on a wide wall,  you can tell that photo belongs to him.. and if your style is recognizable worldwide, you can start generating money.. the quality of the photo does not count really (i.e. light, perspective, golden rules etc)..  and this “rhine” photo is a living example of breaking the photographic rules..

    People like us (photo enthusiasts) takes proper photos of almost everything we like… end up with thousands of (non-stylish but good quality) digital images and slides of landscape, portraits, wildlife, nudes,  so and so…   

  • Commentator

    Hey, let us get real guys, this is utter crap that my 8 year old grandson could take, the printing on a big scale, medium used to take it before frigging about with it in Photoshop or whatever is totally irrelevant. The only setting up this one took was a spirit level on the tripod! Art has to reveal something that was not apparent before, this picture reveals nothing except that it was taken by a (now very wealthy) plonker and praised by a load of idiots who are applauding the emperor’s new clothes.

  • MadMolecule

    Sorry, I think I’m not making my question clear.

    Why does it take months to “set up” one of Gursky’s photos?

  • Commentator

    Nothing special about the place Rockwell, visit the Fens of East Anglia, miles of rivers, green grass and grey sky without much else from October to April, just get out a bit and live instead of sitting in a shed reviewing cameras and lenses, and pretending your an art critic!
    Maybe if you came here you would feel very uneasy with horizons from ear to ear and suffer a mental breakdown, however we locals just live with it!

  • Anonymous

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

    Because a fool and his ridiculous amount of money are soon parted.

    All the rest are rationalizations of the rather stupid notion that cost equals artistic worth.

  • Ed Hoover

    Sounds like you need to get your eight-year-old grandson out of the house with a camera. If he could do it, why hasn’t he?

  • Ksuwildkat

    Thats an insult to Wikipedia.

  • Sodufy

    HE may have  parted with his money, but i assure you the purchaser is no fool. In 10 years he might sell this print for 150% profit, in 50 years when the artist dies, he might sell it for 300% what he paid for it. I assure you he’s no fool.

  • Sodufy

    Rockwell obviously had nothing valid to say here so he just spouted any garbage. He broke the rule of thirds BFD. stick to reviewing gear in your smarmy way and begging for money on every page of your web site.

  • Bevan Sauks

     Location scouting, capturing multiple images at exactly the right time of day/year, scanning large format negatives, then compositing and editing in Photoshop, which was no easy feat in 1999. Most people (I include myself,a university educated digital artist and photographer) would have difficulty juggling a digital composite of this resolution/complexity with modern computers and CS5, let alone what Gursky had to work with.

  • f2point8

    “…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…”

    Oh! Wow I totally missed that. You know, that totally explains the four million dollars.

  • Boethious

    I think that we are in a transformative period of time and as many of you know famous gallerists pay a lot of money to create  a new “wave”. Basically they are a kind of investros for their own benefit. Gursky is just the medium such as Thomas Struth, Thomas Demand, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff. These are actually innovative photographers BUT all of them had the same teachers:Bernd and Hilla Becher. This is the time that the new “wave” (may  i should call it post-modernism) is going to get a new name. So my opinion is that Gursky is an artist who created something new and this is how to make catalogues (in photography). For example his early work in the lobbies ect. But i have to say that the photograph of 99cents says a lot about overconsuming for example.
    To recapitulate i think that gursky is a great and innovative photographer (less than bechers) but we have to think from a general perspective about art, how art define itself and who are they that define the “wave”.
    “It’s all about (art) politics.”

  • Andy Piper

    I think, if it looks like a kid can do it, it probably really is art!

  • Ksuwildkat

    All I know is that my wife is sooooo totally wrong.  I have like $500 million in what she calls “Crap” pictures.  $4 mill per crap picture = $$$$  I am M-O-N-E-Y!!!  Now if I could only get Ken Rockwell to call it art……..

  • Valentino

    The fisrt quote states aspects of size and beauty and how long it takes to make a photo in post processing, etc . . . .
    The second talks about printing techs and how the grain challenges painting, and the shear size of it, not to mention its “rarity”. . . .
    It’s as if they think that Gursky’s image is the only one with those qulities, and hence the only one worth that price becasue he manged to take multiple photos and cut them to make a different scene . . and how it does not follow the rule of thirds etc . . . Are they seriously taking themselves THAT seriously folks!?
    Graphic artists using photography have been doing that for ages now, for starters!
    Don’t forget what I tell you: A couple years ago there was talk about the art of photography not being worthy anymore. . . . and, as noted above, talking about some photographers wanting to rebrand themselves as artists in the fine art field . . . , this is all a insider movement in the fine art world of photography to make money for galleries and artists, because the fine art of drawing and painting is tapped too heavily, compared to photography. This is nothing more than a game of chance that insiders are moving to push on the collector’s world in order to satrt a new business op where the tapping of fine art photography market to come, mingles with painting market, etc. . . . simply BECAUSE the art of photography has gotten WAY saturated as you see on flickr and everywhere else now that newspapers are going under . . . thjere being no more need for photojournalists since there are mini robots of photojournaliosts in ever city of this world, for example. 
    I have been talking of how full of themselves those ignorants are . . and those 2 quotes posted in this thread are excellent examples of what I was talking about.


    This image, which is very simple and no other work done to it, other than pressing the shutter button, speaks to me about this world. It conveys to me a sense of belonging, in that although our heads may be full of ‘noise’ and confusion ( leaves and branches ‘melting’ together), if we take the time to take our heads out of the clouds with our noses in the air, we will see that the world is really more simple and clear (tree trunks).

    Ok who wants to pay me couple million for this image! Ok, what if I make it cleaner and remove the houses from the bgackground, etc. . . May I then ask for 4.3 million? Please? What if I use a film camera, and take multiple shots and then cut the images and use the selected parts to form a newer, cleaner image without the houses there? Who wants to pay me some nice cash for this?

    Ok what If I take my film and digital camera and take a few nice shots of the Rhine? Then I will either cut the film and make a new image with clean lines and simple composition, or edit in post using PS, instead of the film darkroom. . . . who knows maybe I will make more money doing that . . maybe millions!!! Thing is, nobody knows me . . I am not a name in the fine art world. . . . If only I was well known, such an image might fetch some nice cash, I bet. . . because it will then be considered art worthy of such high praise. yeah, I guess that’s never going to happen . . . too good to be true.

  • Valentino

    this image


  • Guest

    I’m not buying their justification of a lackluster image with “CONVENTIONAL IS UNCONVENTIONAL”. 

    It’s so bland that people see what they want to see in it–maybe that’s why people are inflating its value.

    Also, excuuuuse me! Putting a horizon dead-center isn’t unconventional or innovative at all.

  • Justin Manteuffel

    Supply and demand. Gursky found a way into a very niche market. Artistic merit or lack thereof aside, he plainly knows something the rest of us don’t.

  • Osmosisstudios

    +1.  Quoting KRockwell invalidates the entire affair.

  • Marco

    Just to pile on. Ken Rockwell is an IDIOT. The Smithsonian has an HDR photo by Trey Ratcliff. Way to be ignorant Kenny. Stick to taking pictures of random brush and roofs.

  • Elsol

    …and require a lot of digital doctoring to get just right…

    So the guy gets 4.3 million for a ****ing photoshopped image.  Brilliant.  Absolutely ****ing brilliant.

  • Anonymous


  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    After all, it was Rockwell. When was he ever right?

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    There is a simple way of seeing this: people who buy these kind of art are elitists. They are cultural bourgeoisies. They can come up with whatever psuedo-explanation they prefer, it still doesn’t count for anything else than elitists trying to justify their money-spending on meaningless art that they can put up on their walls next to the tiger head and oil painting of themselves. 

    Bourgeoisie culture is not a high point of culture. It is dead on the inside. It’s about spending money and then showing off how much money you spent. It’s not about the piece, it’s about how much you paid for it.