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.