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.


 
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  • Tenant

    You haven’t explained what the movement is that this tricycle best represents and so it is still hard to understand why it’s of any value, letalone 578,000$.

  • Nick

    Thank you David. I am glad that someone with an actual understanding of art has chosen to discuss this topic.

  • http://www.tzplanet.com/ Antonio Marques

    I entirely agree. If photographers choose to dismiss the value of others’ works just because it seems (or is) an easy photo to make, then the photography community is in a very bad place indeed.

    I’m loving that photography is finally getting accepted as an art investment rather than just something pretty to hang on the wall. It promises a great future for the fine art photography market, and the sooner the naysayers realize this, the better.

  • Heike

    yes. Thats exactly what I wanted to hear! What you think this picture is worth that money!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589132353 Mauricio Andres Ramirez Lozada

    Good post, still one must be very critical about why certain works are this expensive, gursky’s work CAN be sold, and it is integrated in a comercial bubble of the art world. not every world changing work can be auctioned, not everybody cares for every important piece of work. i think gursky, damien hirst, jeff koons, are amazing artists but we have to ask if the prices of their pieces trully respond to the quallity of the work rather than the percieved value in its context or status provided within the art media.

  • http://www.rickynyhoff.com/ Ricky Nyhoff

    Well said. Art is not only supposed to be admired, but it can also be seen as an investment. A fact that we are quickly forgetting in a world where the large majority of photography is enjoyed on a screen rather than in a limited print form. 

  • Goofball Jones

    This really explains nothing. The simple fact is that if some unknown person took that exact photo of the tricycle, it would join the other millions upon millions of other mediocre photos and be forgotten. And, in reverse if someone took one of my mediocre photos and claimed it, all of a sudden it would be labeled genius. 

    Watch the movie “Exit through the Gift Shop” and see a tiny fraction of how shallow this whole art world really is. 

  • Steve

    Its not expensive because its art, its expensive because its expensive. Trying to come up with reasons why its worth such a high price is just post hoc reasoning. If you saw such a photo on flickr you would think nothing of it. But that some one bought it for a bunch of money…suddenly its the campy form of “art” you defend.

    As to monetary value, something is worth what ever you will pay for it, and there is a sucker born every day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=511448919 Sean Tooley

     Eggleston was all about the epic in the everyday. He was the first to introduce the freedom that we all use carrying a camera on our moblies for everyday moments into the colour photographic art world and be taken sightly seriously. I’m guessing an art dealer isn’t buying just a print, here its the whole concept and notion it represents. Eggleston was a rich Texan doubt he really cared about how much it sold for, I bet he’d be proud of what his photography repreesents though! 

  • Iam12whatsthat

    art is a commodity.

    there are a limited number of eggleston’s prints.

    people with money like eggleston’s prints.

    price goes up.  :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/gethin.coles Gethin Coles

    http://www.infobarrel.com/Top_10_Most_Valuable_Baseball_Cards 

    Its not quite the same, but similar: the thing itself has little intrinsic aesthetic value

  • Iam12whatsthat

    it’s exactly the same concept.  there are a limited number of cards.  people with money are willing to pay a lot for them.

    what hasn’t been mentioned yet is that sometimes art auctions go very poorly for certain artists and it can drive the rest of the market for the artist down.

  • Iam12whatsthat

    There a lots of attractive people in the world, but somehow sleeping with a famous person seems more exciting, no?
    People love celebrity.

  • http://arenacreative.com/ ArenaCreative.com Stock Photos

    I’ll sell you some ugly photos for $578,500… any time, any place.  I could use an early retirement!

  • Richard Hurt

    Since stock photography drives down the value of images, perhaps you’re in the wrong business?

  • Guest

    Don’t worry too much about it, people. Our society will eventually grow out from the concepts of money and profit. That’s when true art will emerge, that’s truly free from the corrupting monetary system, verbal masturbation and self-validating, egotistical motives.

  • Urgh

    Art has no value and is worth nothing. Business people assign value to art and some people just go along with it because money money money.

  • http://arenacreative.com/ ArenaCreative.com Stock Photos

     You’re preaching to the choir :) Hey, beggars can’t be choosers.  What the stock industry has done has actually opened the eyes of buyers, so see what the value of a photo really is.  And no, I don’t mean $1. 

  • Richard Hurt

    It hasn’t opened anyone’s eyes.  The market is now flooded with generic images, so the price for generic images goes down.

    The people at the top of the market still command very high prices.

  • Bobby Flay

    You mean after WW3?  True art will be finding non-radioactive food?

  • http://twitter.com/nivedaa Niveda

    So it’s expensive because it’s old and it was something new during their era? I shall tell my great great grandkids to sell my photos after im long gone then.

  • Iggy
  • Flypenfly

    Kind of funny on an article about people missing the point, a large number of comments seem to be missing the point, again.

  • Damiamonsivais

    seems you didn’t understand what you read.

  • Damianmonsivais

    Noticed that as well. But thats the kind of society we live in today.

  • Damianmonsivais

    These are people worried about there new tech toys. 

  • Philerskine

    Unfortunately it’s not about photography at all, more like real estate or the stock market. A really bloody good photo of a tricycle wouldn’t be worth much anyway. It’d just end up on Flickr while the poor sod works at a supernarket

  • http://twitter.com/Matthew_T_Rader Matthew T Rader

    I really enjoyed what you said and I totally agree. There are also millions of cheap $5 dollar paintings you can buy, look at the ones you can buy at places like Target and Wal-Mart, many of them are “technically” very good. Do those paintings devalue the art of Monet, Jackson, Kahlo? No they don’t! Specific pieces represent eras, people, ideas, etc. and it is in those representations that give them such value. I am so glad that photography is being seen as such valuable art, cause I believe it is.

  • http://ranger9.net/ Ranger9

    While I sympathize with the effort to make the art world (and its pricing structure) comprehensible to outsiders, I have to point out that its viewpoint, as exemplified by the following statement, is incomplete at best and chauvinistic at worst:

    “With this in mind, it is easy to see why art can only exist by virtue of change.”

    That’s certainly true of works created within the contemporary collector-art system, but it is NOT an inherent characteristic of art in general. It’s simply the preferred mindset of the “modernist” style of art-making that began to appear in Western Europe and America in the late 19th Century, and which triumphantly conquered the gallery/museum/university/media art scene after the Second World War.

    It is NOT necessary a true statement when applied to pre-modernist art, or to non-Western art, or to feminist or Marxist art theory, or to any number of other art systems.

    Again, a useful effort as far as it goes, but we really need to start schooling ourselves out of the reflexive assumption that whatever rich white guys are buying right now constitutes everything that art is or ever was.

  • Sylithae

    True.  Poorly written article.   Answer the title of this article please.  “WHY”?  Why is it worth half a million dollars?  (Coming from an Art Major.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/susan.lueck Susan Lueck

    Rhine II by far the biggest joke ever

  • NoBSlikeHBS

    Allow me to quote you Sylithae, from 3 months ago: “It’s called supply and demand.  If there’s more demand …, prices go up.  Basic business principles.”

  • Onepoint

    A very thoughtful and though-provoking post. Thank you. There will always be people willing to pay a lot of money to other people who see things in a different way, that is, creatively. As an earlier poster noted, you can find technically “perfect” photos anywhere — Target, Walmart, Flickr. So what? It’s the ability to “see differently” that is where the creativity and the value lies. The world certainly doesn’t need another landscape photo, does it? Unless it’s a landscape that is entirely new and makes us stop and think, which you have to agree, most don’t. The same is true with still lifes, portraits, architectural photos, nudes, and on and on. All you people who’ve written negative comments, what do you care if someone who has had an original idea is more than amply rewarded for it? Just because you think you could have created the same image, the fact is, you didn’t.

  • ZD

    Despite it’s historic value or it’s aesthetic appeal, I guess the value of an art work is just in the eyes of the beholder.

  • a real man

    You were clearly breast feed too long.

  • David Cohen de Lara

    That is a good point. The 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 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. Many photographs in Eggleston’s oeuvre have these qualities, and quite a few of them were valued at several hundreds of thousands. But one photograph had to come out on top and this was it. You’d be right to argue that factors of aesthetics do come into play here. Lastly there is the fact that this image was used as the cover for the book ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’, which inevitably gives it a special status within Eggleston’s work. 

  • Photomontart
  • David Cohen de Lara

    That is a good point, and it is why I stated that I’m talking about modern art first and foremost. There are of course other art worlds but this article focuses on the art world surrounding the works in question. 

  • Jose Andres

    Veru good explanation of what is a …photojournalistic picture !

  • Davidcohendelara

    > “Why is it worth half a million dollars? ”

    Simply put, the reason this photograph is worth a lot of money is because it represents a sea change in art. 

    Many values come into play for determining its *exact* value, but the work’s pivotal role in the history of art is wat make it more than just a picture of a tricycle. 

  • David Cohen de Lara

    This is very true. The article describes the basic principle of how the modern art world is supposed to function, and generally does function in practice. Nevertheless there are many factors that may perverse this system. 

  • David Cohen de Lara

    “Art is not only supposed to be admired, but it can also be seen as an investment.”

    This is especially true since prices for photography have risen sharply in recent decades. They still lag miles behind prices paid for photography, but that is to be expected for so young an art form. I am confident that prices paid for photography in the art world will continue to rise for quite some time. 

  • Eggy Stone

    You didn’t read the article, did you? 

  • 9inchnail

     Good explanation, thanks. Now I kinda get the idea why people would spend that much money on a picture of a tricycle. Maybe you should be writing the articles here instead of some self-proclaimed arts expert who couldn’t tell art from his own butt.

  • 9inchnail

     Implying prints can not be dublicated.

    As always, high prices are generated by creating an artificial scarcity. Especially today with digital cameras, I mean why is Andreas Gursky’s photo worth 4 million dollars? Because there is only one print even though he could make thousands of them and sell them for 10 bucks as posters. Thing is, no one would buy that poster because the photo sucks.

  • 9inchnail

     Viva la revolucion, comrade.

  • 9inchnail

    I bet a lot of people here did, that’s why they are envious.
    Do you think this is the only photo ever made in this angle? It’s propably not even the first. In some attic or cellar there’ll be more like these which will never see the light of day.

    What’s really annoying here is that every arts expert here talks about how this photo changed art, photography, the WORLD. Unfortunately no one bothers to explain HOW. What changed? What’s so special? David’s post further up is the best giving at least some explanation but there are still questions to be answered. Maybe there would be less nay-sayers if someone bothered to explain the history and significance of the image.

  • David Cohen de Lara

    “Its not expensive because its art, its expensive because its expensive. Trying to come up with reasons why its worth such a high price is just post hoc reasoning. If you saw such a photo on flickr you would think nothing of it. But that some one bought it for a bunch of money…suddenly its the campy form of “art” you defend.”

    This is not logically sound reasoning. How would the first person decide that something is worth such a high price? The article explains that there is a very sound reason for this. 

  • David Cohen de Lara

    > “You haven’t explained what the movement is that this tricycle best represents and so it is still hard to understand why it’s of any value, letalone 578,000$.”The movement could be described as ‘color photography of the American vernacular’. Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld are two of its other main figures. Works in this genre might look familiar now, but when this movement started around the end of the 1960s, it was entirely revolutionary. It was a new way of representing the world in art. 

  • Eggy Stone

    That is cynical and untrue. Yes, market factors are important in art, but the basic ways in which art is valued can be better understood than you suggest, as is explained by the article.