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)