Rhein II by Andreas Gursky

“Rhein II” by Andreas Gursky. Click for full size

This photo may look familiar to you. Two years ago, a print of this photograph was sold for $4.3 million USD, making it the most expensive photograph ever sold. I do rather like this photo, but the price tag should give anyone pause. Both are worth reflecting on.

The photograph

It’s worth stating that this photo is not natural. There were several extraneous elements removed by the photographer to achieve this stark photograph. A factory, some pedestrians, were all digitally removed in order to achieve this staunchly minimalist effect.

There is a mystique about this photograph that would only be enhanced by viewing the physical print, the one sold measuring 6’x12′ (1.9m x 3.6m). The effect of this photo is that it’s possible to get lost in it, so to speak. The eye searches for detail, for something to focus on, and finds only perfectly straight, unnaturally perfect lines. Yet it is a depiction of a natural setting. The eye ends up wandering the photo, pouring over the details and muted colors of the print. It has a calming effect, for me at least, and I feel like if this print were the size of a wall I could spend several minutes quietly studying it.

The price

Art is worth what people are willing to pay for it, simply put. It doesn’t bother me that the print sold for that high sum, and I don’t necessarily feel like that price is “too much” for this photograph. A 6’x12′ print is impressive on its own, and if someone is willing to pay $4.3M for a print, that is their prerogative.

It’s also worth noting that, although $4.3M is a vast sum, it pales in comparison to the price of the most expensive painting ever sold, The Card Players by Paul Cezanne, sold for $268M. In fact, $4.3M for a painting wouldn’t be even remotely noteworthy or record breaking in any sense.

It can be argued that because photography is still a very young medium and photography doesn’t impact the art world so much as it is a medium onto itself, the prices of photographs will be correspondingly low. Compare this to the work of Picasso, Van Gogh, Pollack, all of whom hugely impacted the art world as its been established for hundreds of years.

The price and the photograph

I think a common response to this photo might be “That sold for four million dollars? I could do that.” Or at least, “How could that have sold for four million dollars? It’s so simple.” The reality is that, this is a unique artistic composition with the visible influence of a skilled artist. Andreas Gursky’s work features very geometric, very pattern based and clean compositions of things found in the world. Rhein II is no exception.

Furthermore, the photograph evokes a response out of the viewer. Ultimately, I think that’s a measure of good art. There is art that I’ve been moved to posses because of the feeling I get when viewing it. Now, this is usually in the form of a $20 poster print of a painting or a photograph. However, if I were a man of great means, I can understand the desire, the draw to  own the original painting, or a 6’x12′ print of a photograph.

What are your thoughts?


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