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.

  • David Cohen de Lara

    *They still lag miles behind prices paid for paintings,

  • David Cohen de Lara

    Yes. But the article explains WHY people with money like Eggleston’s prints.

  • David Cohen de Lara

    Your comment is sadly cynical and naive. The fact that there is only one print of ‘Rhine II’ does not, as you suggest, explain its value. There are many other photographs of which there is only 1 print, yet none of those command $4.3 million at auction. The real reasons for the value of this photograph are explained in the article. They are true regardless of whether or not you think ‘the photo sucks’. 

  • David Cohen de Lara

    Nothing at all, I’m afraid. It is a picture of a tricycle but it doesn’t have any of the characteristics that give art value. 

  • Benjamin Franzmayr

     I think he, like me, read and understood the article and still thinks it’s “rich fools buying the emperor’s new clothes”. 

  • Cantbelievethiscrap!

     Spot on Tenant, poorly written article, vague in its explanations and to be honest , if the way the article was written reflects on its point, then my opinion that half of million dollars is an absolute waste of money for a snapshot is validated! Honestly David, I think you have been smoking way too much “art” in Amsterdam!

  • misund007

    The world of Art seems to be a very unfair one. I am sure there has been photos and art with greater meaning and thought that has little or no value, but because this Eggleston has become famous the value is what it is. I would compare it the photo to a scarf. A scarf in itself has hardly any value, but imagine if Elvis once wore it onstage ….

  • johnt

    having read the article i can only conclude some people have much to much money and nothing better to spendit on.
    A fools money etc, and as for the author well what can i say, a real load of bullshit has come tumbling from his mouth with gusto

  • David Cohen de Lara

    “because this Eggleston has become famous the value is what it is”     And WHY do you think this work has become famous? What the article explains is that there is a good reason why some works and artists become famous and others don’t. 

  • Lee Harris

    If I was very rich and was assured i could buy a photo or a painting for a lot of money and it would sell for a lot more money later on I would buy it irrespective of whether I liked it or not, obviously one would prefer to buy something that one liked but this is not really about that is it? 

    Most people buy stocks not concerned with the moral issues that might arise if they knew more about the company. 

    I like the image above and Rhine II, but arguing about what they are worth is pointless; they are worth was someone thinks it’s worth paying for them, if they get caught with their pants down because it’s then determined to be a fake then more fool them, but most likely they will be laughing all the way to the bank. Do you really think they would buy it and say I love it so much I don’t care if next year the art world has determined it is no longer a great piece and so worthless.

    On a side note, a general observation, to the average person art all too often represents a kind of arrogance, a self importance, often too self-obsessed with what they have to say without concern for the humility to learn well the craft in order to say it. 

    Nowadays no one wants to waste time becoming a pop star, an artist, famous, etc, etc they just want to be it, right here and right now.  

  • Lee Harris

    Well no it is not, if your criteria is only how much was paid for it then they are many more ‘bigger jokes’ out there. 

  • misund007

    I sure there are many reasons why Eggleston became famous, and the more we talk about his work the more valuable his art becomes. What I do find problematic is that if you remove the artist from this art, what you are left with is a snapshot. You would not say the same of artwork from Picasso or Dalli

  • Goofball Jones

    Is the movement that Eggleston belongs to called “Expensive Mediocrity”? That would explain a lot. But I jest…

  • Goofball Jones

    It does? I’ve read the article several times now and it’s very vague at best. It explains nothing. One thing it doesn’t delve into is how that photo and photographer got famous and then commanded that high price. 

    It has to do with either a critic or a gallery owner that decides to show his work…and then play it up majorly. They write extensive BS about how important it is and what it means to blah blah blah. WHAM you got yourself a show and rich art buyers looking for the next big thing, and the gallery gets their cut. 

    Again, see how it works in “Exit through the Gift Shop”. You see a guy with no talent selling expensive works to these people. But it doesn’t matter now, as Mr. Brainwash is famous. 

  • Stu

    Let’s face it ………We would all love to sell a photograph for a huge amount of money who wouldn’t ………So the author had a story to accompany the image ….ok that’s fine 

    He managed to somehow get across to the money art loving community his opinion ! 
    That the image was Art ? And not the KINGS new clothes ………which i and obviously others think it is.

    It’s an age old technique ……..I’v seen it happen with the wine experts big-in it up ohhhh  the beautiful  aroma of a particular this wine ummmm….unbeknown to them it had been switched to a cheap Shiite wine but they where sold on it… and stood their ground ….. not wanting be made a fool  bought ten case’s !!

    And after all nobody wants to be the fool…. I rest my case …………I have some lovely images for sale if any wine tasters are reading this post ……..!

  • David Cohen de Lara

    Which part exactly do you find vague? What I’m saying is nothing new: any art historian will tell you the same thing. That said, I would love to hear your alternative theory on how art gets its value. 

  • David Cohen de Lara

    That is your opinion and personal taste. You prefer your art to be aesthetically beautiful and well-made. Perhaps you are not interested in the conceptual side of modern art, its meaning or its relationship with the world around it. But if you remove all context from art, what you’re left with is craft. Picasso and Dali may have been great craftsmen, it is the way their work changed the world around them that has made them great artists. 


  • ChristianRudman

     That is the author of the article you realize?

  • Lisa Osta

    Art is worth what the buyer thinks it is worth. The buyer (likely a well funded art gallery) has an important piece of photographic history. This is an important photograph, the most significant in the work of William Eggleston. Also unlike the work of Gurksy it was not created to be sold for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, it was just a photograph in the 70’s. I wonder what type of print it is because many color prints from that time period are very unstable and prone to fade.

  • DCAllespach

    Good article. ‘Art’ is about fresh access to reality. And photography is certainly not all about technical sophistication. The dollar value is another issue.

  • Bzzliteyr

    I see ranting and raving in the comments here and I’ll admit I did not read them all but in skimming over them I did not see the very simple answer to the initial question:

    “Why is this photograph worth $578,500?”

    Because that is what someone paid for it.  If that person had paid $20 for it, that photograph would be worth $20.  

  • David Cohen de Lara

    Well obviously. But why did someone pay $578,500 for it? Because the photograph will forever represent a turning point in modern art. 

    Yes there are a lot of other factors that come into play before the exact dollar amount is determined, but the principal reason the photograph has any value beyond being pretty is the above. 

  • Sdad

    Thanks for trying to explain “art”.  Shame there was no real info until your post in these comments! Lot of words though, keeping me unconvinced.

  • Minus Manhattan

    It’s worth half a million dollars because someone is willing to pay half a million dollars for it.

  • SM

    This article sums up very quickly what art as become.  When the first question asked is “what is this piece worth, monetarily” and not “what does this piece represent, what is its purpose, what is its statement, what is its artistic value” then we have lost something more valuable than money.  Art has become a tradable investment, a commodity to pad an investment portfolio.  And a very stable investment at that. The person who purchase’s a Gursky for 3 million dollars does not care for its creative value, only its probable rise in monetary value, to be auctioned later.  And this makes me sad, for art has the power to transcend such silly human constructs as money or investment but that’s exactly where the value is placed.  

    My second statement is this; photography is not painting.  It’s very nature is to be reproduced, over and over again, negative and positive.  The only one-offs in photography are created to increase the monetary value of the piece.  It must be judged separately and not placed within the confines of paint medium.

  • Art Vandelay

    Looks a tad underexposed to me. Perhaps a curves adjustment in PS…….

  • Wallerus

    I’ve looked at art and collector’s items too as valuable in relation to how a potential buyer sees them. As in, value is in the eye of the beholder or buyer. I think art has so many different mediums and tools these days, we tend to value it less. In much less modern times, art was valued more since tools were limited and expertise was made famous by the artists using them. If someone wants to fork over 600K for a picture of a tri-cycle, who am I to say, it’s not worth it? Nobody, that’s right, it’s not my place to tell them it’s dumb. However, it is my place to take more extreme measures in my own art, so that it is valued like this long after I am gone. two cents.

  • Killermotion

    Photographs are worth as much as people will pay for them. Nuff said.

  • silentdon

    Are you talking about the self-proclaimed arts expert who couldn’t tell art from his own butt that wrote this article? Because that’s the same person that wrote the explanation above.

  • thehiker

    Art has just become one more big corporate interest where large amounts of cash are spent by the rich as an investment , the B.S. about why something is worth what is worth is only surpassed by the B.S. that comes out of Congress.  

  • WLS

    The sade thing is that your right. Why is photography judged agenst traditonal art (painting) and not in its own as photgraphic art. Over 100 years ago Steglates fort for photography to be reconised as its own art form to be judged along side all the other traditonal art forms as equal.
    Talking about new movments in photography is radiculas as the art form is set and does not need to progress in the traditonal sense of art but just needs to continu doing wot it does well. Most photographers are angrey that this sort of art photography is so highly regarded in the art world because thay now the welth of grate work created by the long list of photographers whos work is a true represintation of traditonal photography and does not need to have the loftey and over thought explinations on why it has artistic merit and value.
    With photoshop and conceptual high art, photography is loosing its way and needs to find its way back to its tradional roots and not follow in the shadow of high art but brake free and stand alone and be respected for it.

  • caps

    likely caps for sale in following time

  • Jannx

    it’s pretty depressing reading “this isn’t art” monologue from ‘jocks’ who think paying some guy to throw a ball for a few weeks a year is totally worth it for $32.0M but art!! “Whoa I can do that man”.

    How can you talk to stupid people. It’s impossible

  • Anthony Rivers

    I’m sorry, I tried to wrap my head around a $500,000 photograph and why it would be worth that much. I fail to see any reason it should. At all. A $500,000 photograph is insanity wrapped in art and materialism in flat, 2D color.

  • Richard Swagger

    I enjoyed the article very much.

    I see Eggleston’s work as genius, pure badass, and highly underrated.  Critics have always been cynical towards his perspective towards art and life, ever since his first exhibits and books. Once you understand and see Eggleston, you can easily pick his photographs out from a slew of “snapshots.”  The same goes for Gursky and other photographers whose art is now “crazy expensive” at auction. I say that if someone wants to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, let them.  Also, one should never state the value of art unless you actually see it in person.

    From his photos to his home made movies, Eggleston has had a pure and unique vision that he successfully captures on film.  I admire his style and his dedication to the art.  He is making photographs, always has made photographs, and always will make photographs…until he dies…whether his work is sold at auction for extremely high prices or not. 


    ps…he is a very quirky guy, especially in interviews.  I also admire that he and his son always go for trips shooting.  Much like Brett and Edward Weston.

  • Wachberg

    it’s the old debate. modern art is a way of thinking and 
    seeing. as long as you are not able to see art that way 
    you do not see art at all. to those who are not in it: there
    is more than meets the eye immediately.

  • Dave Reynolds

    blah blah blah gibberish. Concept not proven. It sounds like if you had enough money, you’d be one of the pretentious wealthy idiots who would pay for pretentious crap like this. 

  • Dave Reynolds

     You forgot to include a car in a carport in the frame, to show the progression of toys a man has in his life.  Otherwise, you’d be rolling in bling, mofo!

  • Andreas

    I got your point and I appreciate this very well explanation of “what means ‘worthy’ in terms of art?” But I do not agree with the implication that the most expensive artwork represents “the best … examples of an entirely new movement in art”.

    Because many many people create really nice art. But as it is not their profession and they’re not famous… no one will pay so much money for their artwork. Even if it’s “state of the art”, new, good, and the “best example”.

    And if the artwork is worth $4.3 mio? Hmmm… No. Not for me.

  • Huey Le

    bunch of stupid rich people that has too much time and cash to spare, I could have photographed my car and sell it for half a mill ( make sure that i need to hire or bribe some famous art critics to make them turn my mediocre photos taken with super cheap compact camera into thing people called “Art”. Yeah…. How I wish people can have heart to spare some cash for their own kind… look how many people who need help… some of them barely have enough things to eat to survive. Ask yourself

  • Fabian

    This article is pure rationalization. The photo sold for as much as it did because it is famous, and made by a famous photographer, nothing more. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” jacket sold for $1.8M. Is that fine art, too? No, it’s famous, and once worn by a famous artist. Both items are expensive for exactly the same reason.

  • Justin Black

    I think people are overlooking the fact that the Eggleston picture is actually a splendid and careful composition, and is deceptively simple in its execution. In one sense it’s a straightforward shot, but few photographers would have seen or thought to make this picture if they had been there at the same time (and during the same era). Lots of the most highly regarded photographs in history are fairly straightforward technically, so there must be something else going on.

    In a world where photos in general are devalued more and more, I’m glad to see this picture valued as highly as it is.

  • Swampy

    You still don’t understand – though admittedly the article above doesn’t even really get into that aspect of it and kind of takes it a priori that the reader would know this.
    It has become all to commonplace in the saturated, undereducated and simplistic “think critical about capitalism” crowd to make the assumption that something can exist without value. Everything however has a value and a priority. You may not like this but that’s life. And people or societies that don’t recognize this truth will always end up in trouble.
    Art specifically has a lot of value. It is one of the major things that makes us human. We shouldn’t lose this. We should rather be grateful that at least the visual arts are thriving – even in a digital age where copying everything is possible and costs little. Look what has happened to music in the age of “free” distribution channels (let’s call it theft perhaps) and 99c songs on big web sites that do NOT value the art and craft of the musicians and nobody can live of (no even the big established stars).
    I can’t even begin to calculate how much value some art and music has added to my life.

  • Swampy

    May I ask you something? Do they teach you basic economics and pricing theory in college as part of your Art Major? If not they should – or you should run quickly and find a place that does. If you’re serious about arts – or anything – you have to understand some principles. Lot’s of artists in particular don’t seem to understand or not care. Maybe it’s still fashionable being the “starving artist” but then that’s your call and maybe simply a different kind of value you find in that. 

  • Jimmy McNulty

    Interesting discussion, but the bias against craft in favor of conceptual or interpretive art – depending on the perspective of the artist or the eyes that see his/her work – is to me the most frustrating part of so many critics’ and experts’ attitudes. The interpretation that this photo isn’t worth what it sold for is separate, I think, from its interpretation as a work of art.  I don’t look at most of the thousands of images I see every week and think, hmmm, that should fetch about $….you get the point.  Simply in terms of seeing the world beyond the mere image – what the author here is calling art – I can arrive at similarly profound conclusions from images not presented as “*art* art”, let alone pulp. If the response is that I’m talking ‘aesthetics’…that’s just a word for taste or tendency or configurations of better instinct. It doesn’t address the question of craft or money.

    It could well be that this is a landmark photo in terms of intellectual currents in art/photography – and I do “buy” the conviction behind your explanation – but people who react harshly to stories of this kind are not wrong or undereducated or crass dialecticians. What’s the use in pretending the market value of this or any other high priced work (niche by virtue of who can afford and ascribe monetary value to them) is anything other than the product of elitism. Say that, and still defend the art. People get it, even if they are resentful of a world in which 4-5 million would feed a province; fortunate enough not to be in that province but not fortunate enough to get that kind of loot for a photo of their grown boy’s bike on a perfectly cloying, synaesthetic afternoon. 

    I’m not saying anything about my fitness to judge the attendant social capital of owning, knowing, or namedropping works of art or artists and their impact.  It’s part of our mythology to do this.  I’m also not saying this for the sake of an equally obvious hunger artist complex that injects so much more socioeconomics into art than it already inherently contains. 

    All I’m saying is that with any form of art, it’s equally if not especially foolish to denigrate craftsmanship/aesthetics as it is to whine about powerful art that isn’t heavily dependent on skill. Same coin if you ask me, especially if it’s really about ways of seeing the world. 

  • Jimmy McNulty

    Tricycle, lest I be suspected of not looking hard enough ; )

  • thehiker

    are we looking at the same image?

  • nicola zingarelli

    Unfortunately what art or non-art is, is being determined by some other men, art critics for example, and they decide whether a piece is to be considered art or not. Starting from that the image, paint or sculpture accumulates zeros to its price. I understand that there must be someone doing this job, what scares me is that this “someone” is a guy like me or you who had the chance to become someone in the art criticis business and uses his personal taste or a supposed knowledge to judge a piece. I might be a dork, silly, ingorant guy but even if this photo could be a piece of art because it reflects in a very special way a period of time…blah, blah, blah I don’t see it as such. Means not much to me and is technically (for what is worth) at least simplistic. Envious? Not really, just puzzled. Art is Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Bethooven, Mozart, Mirone, Donatello….

  • Gfurself

    this is a pathetic post

  • Charles Gallo

    OK – I’ll give you “They are the standard for their movement” – of course, to ME, the whole movement isn’t/wasn’t worth much, so for ME, there is no way I’d pay that kind of money for these pictures.  Then again, I walk through the MoMA in NY, and say “WHY is 90% of this ‘stuff’ here” (Think George Carlin’s routine on what he calls other people’s stuff)
    90% of Modern (Not in art world terms – yes, I know modern is old) art to ME is not ART, it’s artists doing (trying to figure how to say this in polite terms) things for other artists to show how clever they are.
    BTW, I had this argument MANY times with my Mother In Law, who had her Doctorate in Art Education (and many artist considered her works to be fairly good) – hint, you want just about any of her works that are left?  Come and get them, my wife, her brother and I all consider them clutter to be gotten rid of