PetaPixel

Why This Photograph is Worth $578,500

Last week, a collection of 36 prints by William Eggleston was sold for $5.9 million at auction.  The top ten list of most expensive photographs ever sold doesn’t contain a single work worth less than a cool million. Just a few months ago, Andreas Gursky’s ‘Rhine II’ became the world’s most expensive photograph, selling for $4.3 million.

Every time news like this reaches the Internet, the comments sections of photography blogs explode with righteous indignation. The common sentiment in these reactions seems to be that the art world is populated by rich fools buying the emperor’s new clothes. Some commenters underscore this idea by expressing how unremarkable they think the photograph in question is, or how it fails technically or esthetically. In the case of the recent Eggleston auction, the photograph ‘Memphis (Tricycle)’ that sold for $578,500 was dismissed by several commenters as a snapshot that ‘any fool with a camera could have taken’. 

Whenever I read those comments I imagine how frustrating it must be to have such a limited and cynical understanding of how art is valued. It must seem like the world has gone mad. But while it is probably true that not everyone in the art world is equally sane, there are in fact some sound reasons why some photographs are more valuable than others. Once you understand what those reasons are, your appreciation of art will grow and the frustration will go away. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, photography was still struggling to be accepted as an art form. One of the main proponents of the medium was Alfred Stieglitz, whose photography and galleries helped further the cause of photography in a critical time. Stieglitz photographed his wife Georgia O'Keeffe obsessively between 1918 and 1925, creating an extraordinary and unprecedented personal document. A detail of her hands and a nude, both dating from 1919, sold for close to 1,5 million each in 2006.

The first thing to realize is that in art, especially modern art, value is not simply attributed according to how aesthetically pleasing something is or how well it is made. Aesthetics and craftsmanship are certainly important, but they are are by no means the sole or even primary contributors to the value of an artwork, monetary or otherwise. Those who say ‘Memphis (Tricycle)’ is not beautiful or technically accomplished enough to be worth half a million dollars are simply missing the point.

To understand which factors are responsible for the value of a work of art, you must first understand what art is. Art is a way of seeing the world. It challenges perceptions, evokes emotions and stimulates thought. All great art changes the way we see the world around us, or perhaps creates a new world all of its own. That’s what sets art apart from crafts, which are solely concerned with craftsmanship and aesthetics. 

Cindy Sherman's "Untitled #96" (1981) sold for $3,890,500 in 2011, making it the most expensive photograph at the time. Sherman’s life work encompasses several series of self portraits in which she challenges perceptions of identity. This body of photographic work was unprecedented in its scope and consistency, and one of the major forces that established photography as a medium for conceptual art.

With this in mind, it is easy to see why art can only exist by virtue of change. It needs to always show us new things, or show us existing things in new ways. That is why the most highly valued works are always the ones that are the best (not necessarily first) examples of an entirely new movement in art. Those works don’t just show us something new in the work itself, they actually change the world around them. 

This is what William Eggleston’s work represents. Just like the work of Picasso, Van Gogh, Mondriaan or Warhol, Eggleston’s work epitomizes an entirely new movement in art: in this case the movement that established color photography as a legitimate art form in a time when all serious art photography was black & white. It was a movement that gave us an entirely unprecedented look at the way we live, and and forever changed the art of photography. 

The real reason ‘Memphis (Tricycle)’ has come to stand out is because it so clearly typifies the author and the movement he was part of. It’s in the way the scene so aptly illustrates the time period. It’s in the way the photograph finds beauty in the commonplace and turns an everyday object into something iconic. It’s in the way it seems to reveal the feeling of desolation that lurks behind the facade of American suburbia. It’s in the way the photograph documents everyday life from a new perspective and enlarges the mundane to make it special. This single picture could tell you everything you need to know about the art movement it belongs to.

Andreas Gursky’s 1999 photograph ‘Rhine II’ is the most expensive photograph to date. Gursky used digital manipulation to show a contemporary twist on one of Germany’s favorite themes: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature. The photograph’s large format and computer aided perfection herald a new age for modern photography and its potential for creating hyper-real visions of the world.

‘Memphis (Tricycle)’ has become the archetypical example of Eggleston’s contribution to the art form, just like ‘Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare’ has for Cartier-Bresson and ‘Rhein II’ has for Gursky. These photographs, in retrospect, are some of the clearest and most accomplished examples of the new movements to which they belong. Together with a handful of other works they represent turning points in the way art represents the world, and because those particular turning points happened once, they can never happen again. 

The art world acknowledges this unique significance and reflects it in the monetary value placed on the works. So is a $4.3 million too much to pay for the world’s most expensive photograph? Considering that it is less than two percent of what was paid for the most expensive painting, I’d say it’s a bargain. 


About the author: David Cohen de Lara is a freelance photographer based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Visit his website here.


 
 
  • Anton Kisselgoff

    May I recommend further reading –
    Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ and in
    particular ‘Photographic Evangels’.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7KYYKMHSB4BZSOP2VS4PYO3ZJE Bhaven

    The article raises more questions than responses. No where is it mentioned how old this image is and what movement the photographer represented. Until I started reading it, it was only fair for me to assume that the image was clicked a few days or months ago and hence is being sold now. Somewhere the article seems to say that this was one of the first color images. If that is the case, then its simple to understand that the image has value because of historical significance. (a piece of stone that is suddenly discovered to be a billion years old will be worth a million dollars, not because of its size or weight, but becuz of the fact that it connects us to history). Similarly this image represents some initial color imagery and hence its worth. Instead of being a bicycle, even if it had a guy shitting on the beach, the worth would be high becuz of historical significance than becuz of whats inside the frame. This is the only thing I could deduce from the article. On its own, the article is pretty vague and superficial.

  • Eagleboy54

    What a load of pretentious crap!!!!

  • Cochese

    While I would never, ever pay that much much for it, that photo by Andreas Gursky is one of my favorite photos. And while I’ve successfully recreated it using a similar area in my hometown, it isn’t that particular photo.

    Just like most things in life, anything and everything has a value and that value will be determined by an individual on a personal basis. Take the world of video games, there are some games I’d easily pay a couple hundred dollars for, especially if it comes in it’s original box.

    A lot of it has to do with obtaining an original copy of something as well. People like to collect things and will go to great lengths to complete their collections.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Art-Swift/100001954897581 Art Swift

    The difference today is that it has also become a financial instrument.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Art-Swift/100001954897581 Art Swift

    Galleries and museums depend on wealthy donors to the extent that they
    do because they are competing in an economy that demands enormous
    capital investment. Galleries need wealthy collectors to finance the
    kind of large expensive spaces that attract wealthy collectors and to
    pay the high costs of going to art fairs that wealthy collectors attend.

    Museums need wealthy donors above all to buy art that is only as
    expensive as it is because wealthy collectors, dealers and a few very
    successful artists have driven prices into the stratosphere. Or they
    need wealthy donors to expand their buildings to show this expensive
    art, or to compete with other museums for wealthy donors.

    The solution
    is to stop competing in that economy and instead invest in programs that
    do not require that kind of capital that makes them dependent on
    wealthy donors.

    http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2012/march/27/how-the-art-market-became-a-luxury-goods-business/

  • Design Teach

     I teach Design Studies (Artistic aspects, Architecture, Journalism) as well as Music . I fully agree that Art and Music have added to my life, and others, in such a large manner. However, would any one piece add $578,000+ to my life. Lets say the average salary in the United States is 60 Grand a year. Would this piece of art add to a family of 4 as much as 10 years of salary at today’s dollar value? Hmm. . . I would think that farmers who produce food would be more important, overall.

    Art is important, definitely, but is ONE photograph worth that much to society?  The MONETARY value of art is difficult to measure, what does it produce for a company, unless it is for an advertisement or commercial purpose? Monetary isn’t necessarily the best measure, but really, 500+ grand for a photograph is only because of somebody willing to pay disposable income towards that, and the market has said this person’s work will sell for that.

  • Guest

    Makes us human… sorry to burst your bubble but neither art nor society are even natural let alone human. I think a child’s well being is worth much more than capture of light in lenses printed with ink onto paper. Someone is willing to pay millions for something that lacks life or purpose asides from aesthetics   but not for the livelihood of hundreds of people for a year? Art is wonderful as is music but I’d rather have food on my table for a lifetime than a piece of paper that I will grow tired of and that will deteriorate and be forgotten before my death.  I believe the problem is not so much that people do not appreciate art as it is that artists tend to have backwards priorities.

  • Dodg3rii

    The photo is great, no doubts there. However, the fact that these forms of art reach such high PRICES (I won’t use the word “value” here, since it is subjective and wouldn’t be fair) is just a sign of how unbalanced humanity has become.

  • Surly Ghillie

    Cool> We get to the crux of the biscuit. In his article about those pictures the author said;

    “To understand which factors are responsible for the value of a work of art, you must first understand what art is. Art is a way of seeing the world. It challenges perceptions, evokes emotions and stimulates thought. All great art changes the way we see the world around us, or perhaps creates a new world all of its own. That’s what sets art apart from crafts, which are solely concerned with craftsmanship and aesthetics”.
    With regard to the tricycle pic, it came at a time when the social realities of production-line industrialisation were beginning to seep through to all levels of society and become a significant fixture in the broader social landscape. The AMERICAN DREAM began to play out. It included a mass exodus to ‘suburbia”. Three-bedroom, 2 b/room homes with a double garage privately owned by EVERYMAN, with a white picket fence, a wife & two veg was touted as the brave new world in which every idiot and his Barbie-doll wife would have security of tenure, a job for life with a guarantee of a pension at age 60. The shiny enamel paint would never fade, the chrome would never tarnish and everybody would all live together happily ever after. Along came William Eggleston, and with this image and others, he stripped the illusion away. he showed a world devoid of LIFE. The enamel paint is cracking, the chrome is peeling and rust begins to show. The landscape he shows is one of a materialism in which there is no life. It’s edge to edge concrete, cold, soulless… and abandoned by the warmth of LIVING creatures. People, stay there, sure…. but is this what LIVING is about?

    He said it all in simple images and was among the first to express it in photographs with such brutal clarity and honesty. That makes the images iconic of truths that have along the way become so passé and clichéd than now, along come a bunch of camera-club members who are so self satisfied with their camera-club credo, and so completly parochial about the broader expressions of the human experience, that they see nothing and know nothing of this other reality. It’s called complacency. Eggleston, ignoring the rule of thirds, the rule of chocolate box composition, the rule of horizons, and every other convention he could think of, stripped the marketing hype away from the conventional image of the perfect, unquestioning life-view immediately between and after the 2 world wars.His images were not derivative. They boldly stated a truth in defiance of the popular chocolate box convention, both in the way they were constructed and in the content they revealed ~the AMERICAN DREAM as butt-naked as the emperor without clothes. The originality and courage of the images are what give them their value. If you or I go and take the same pic, it’s meaningless. we would merely be copying a statement that has been made so often its just an empty cliché now. It’s the same cliché when you scuttle along to your camera club to produce an endless conveyor belt of purple-prose sunsets, seascapes, king-of-the-beast portraits. Doesn’t matter how many VVWD’s you garnish. 99.999% of all the perfect landscapes, bif’s, wildlife portraits, flaccid glamour pics, no matter how technically perfect they are… their value is limited and transient because they say nothing new and speak of unclear creative vision.Does this help in the search for a definition of Art that you can all live with….

  • Maithili Potdar

    The Article says that it explains as to why a particular Art is worth a million Dollars ..but it doesn’t really get there. He spins around the idea of determining the worth of a particular subject, also known as Art, but fails to explain as to what makes a particular visual so important..or worth spending so much. Some have written that it’s just a game of money. Rich will spend some million bucks over something just because it was being valued that much. But as an Artist, I personally feel that It is not the end product in front of you that is valuable..But It is the first Thought that comes to the viewers mind that Adds value to the subject. The Idea, the Feeling, The Thoughts which are invoked after seeing something, are actually, the Art behind the Subject! These feelings that one experiences after seeing something , are the actual subject the Artist focuses on. Art is something the naked eye cannot see but very much Exists! Art is something which is stimulated n mind after looking at a particular photograph, painting etc.. it can be anything! The person who knows this, knows how to value a particular thing. A painting which could be worthless for someone, could be worth a million for someone else. Art is free from judgment and value. If today i find this Tricycle photograph to be something reminding me of a particular moment..or my childhood…it could be worth a million for me! People want to reason out everything…why a particular thing is in a certain way..or why is it not. But..some things are beyond reasoning. They simply exist irrespective if they should or should not…free from reasoning…free of value.

  • Maithili Potdar

    The Article says that it explains as to why a particular Art is worth a million Dollars ..but it doesn’t really get there. He spins around the idea of determining the worth of a particular subject, also known as Art, but fails to explain as to what makes a particular visual so important..or worth spending so much. Some have written that it’s just a game of money. Rich will spend some million bucks over something just because it was being valued that much. But as an Artist, I personally feel that It is not the end product in front of you that is valuable..But It is the first Thought that comes to the viewers mind that Adds value to the subject. The Idea, the Feeling, The Thoughts which are invoked after seeing something, are actually, the Art behind the Subject! These feelings that one experiences after seeing something , are the actual subject the Artist focuses on. Art is something the naked eye cannot see but very much Exists! Art is something which is stimulated n mind after looking at a particular photograph, painting etc.. it can be anything! The person who knows this, knows how to value a particular thing. A painting which could be worthless for someone, could be worth a million for someone else. Art is free from judgment and value. If today i find this Tricycle photograph to be something reminding me of a particular moment..or my childhood…it could be worth a million for me! People want to reason out everything…why a particular thing is in a certain way..or why is it not. But..some things are beyond reasoning. They simply exist irrespective if they should or should not…free from reasoning…free of value.

  • Hiwatt

    It looks like a kid fell off and accidentally snapped a shot with his/her (must be politically correct) toy camera.

  • Murmur

    Best things in life are for free. It is pathetic to reflect artwork’s importance in monetary value. Especially when all this money is going into one man’s pocket.

  • dimitrisservis

    I have the impression that the author nicely explains what is art collecting rather than what art is…

  • Wieland Schmidt

    But “value” isn’t just about money, right?

  • Scud

    Awkward…

  • Jack Bone

    Just goes to show why photography has become an idiot sport.

  • threebranch

    Um, no — he was/is not a rich Texan. He is from the Mississippi Delta and Memphis, TN from an upper middle class family. But other than that, I think you are correct.

  • kebman

    Blah, blah, blah. Yes, I agree this is great salesmanship. Wise was the photographer that thought me the following: “The art isn’t taking the photo; it’s selling it.” Have a nice day!

  • A.G. Photography

    …When in fact these photographs are chosen by “certain rich folks” who lack culture and ART education, and who buy such photos for the emotions they evoked in “them” and nobody else. It’s reverse psychology. Some person drops 6 zeros on something hoping to start a trend, or convince the masses that “crap” is worth 6 or 7 zeros. Reverse Psychology + Dumbing of the masses.

  • Joe Pepersack

    Exactly. Some gallery owner came up with a cock-and-bull story that convinced some person with more money than taste that this picture is worth more than most people make in a decade.

    There’s a handful of prestigious gallery owners who declare what is “art” and what isn’t, and a handful of super-wealthy buyers who “invest” in it in the hopes of unloading it on some bigger fool at a higher price in a couple of years. It’s all an incestuous circle of mutual masturbation.

  • David Crosby

    It’s called walk around with Walker Evans and photograph those bits of Americana he photographed, only in color.

  • Ollie

    Wow, a lot of bitterness over this. Most of the arguments are all rather done though, yes physically (as a piece of paper) its not worth it, thats a dumb thing to say, but the same is true in almost every other aspect of our lives, this is how capitalism works.

    I have no real beef with this kind of thing, its a lot of money but its down to the individual to spend their earnings on whatever they want. How many of us pay through the nose for TV channels/packages when we could donate that money to “feed families”?

    Why is it worth so much? Because of editioning. Why does editioning exist? Because gold is running out and banks are collapsing so rich people need somewhere to store their money.

  • Whocares

    Value and price are completely unrelated. Value is what something is worth. Value does not change. Price however is dependent on demand, desirability drives price nothing else.