How much are photographs worth? (And why are we talking about it?)



The latest auction record for a photograph was set by Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II1. Gursky is no stranger to being in this position. Previously, he held the record for a while with 99 Cents2 - photography, one could argue, that was surely worth more than the value given in its title. Several million dollars felt a bit like a stretch. But it was and still is magnificent photography, the artist’s signature achievement. (more)

In contrast, seeing Rhein II being sold for more then $4m most certainly gave me a funny feeling. The photograph is unremarkably mediocre seen in the context of the other work Gursky did during the period of time it was made3. It is a manipulated photograph, but who cares about that any longer?

But auction prices do not reflect artistic merit or brilliance. The reflect the art market at work, a playground for the rich and superrich, spending money on whatever looks like “high art,” regardless of whether it holds up to critical scrutiny. Auction prices reflect how much one individual (or organization) is willing to pay for some piece of art. That’s it.

So why do we even talk about the fact that some millionaire paid way too much money for a mediocre Gursky photograph?

There is, of course, the fact that photographs, well some photographs, no really just a small number of photographs by a small number of artists are now being sold along the Warhols and Koons and Hirsts. That is, let’s face it, a very sad criterion for whether or not photography is an established art form, and it tells us more about the state of the art world itself than about art or photography.

Why do we care abut whether photography is accepted by people who think a badly preserved shark in a big tank is high art? What exactly are we photographers and photography enthusiasts gaining from that? Is that what we care about? Should we care?

For a short while, I was tempted to think that if anybody, it would be Andreas Gursky who would have benefited from his works’ new role as record breaker in the secondary market. He is now showing in the beyond-price-tag world, with fabled art dealer Larry Gagosian. But one can’t help but wonder why the past few years have resulted in such uninspiring photography by an artist who, not so long ago, was showing if not the new way for photography, then at least a new way. Gursky’s latest show at Gagosian’s Chelsea gallery, which opened just before the new auction record, looks and feels, let’s be honest, just forgettable. It pains me to write this given how much I appreciate work of the caliber of 99 Cents, but it seems that inspiration has run completely dry. As an aside, Gursky is not the only well-known photographers suffering from that affliction. Has the photography-art-market boom led into a creative dead end for some of these artists? It is an intriguing (and depressing) thought…

Specific photographers aside, what have we gained from all of this, from record prices for photographs, from people talking about photography as almost as good an investment opportunity as painting, say? Given so many of us got so worked up about this (and earlier) auction record(s) we might as well ask, especially since there will be many more such records, hopefully occasionally for more deserving pieces than Rhein II.

The most expensive photograph I own is worth a puny fraction of the $4m+ someone paid for Rhein II. I collect photographs, and 99% of them of them are worth way less than my most expensive ones (lest you wonder we’re talking about less than $1,000 here). These 99% are old tintypes and vernacular snapshots, along with the prints of my own photography, which, by the definition of “the market”, are worthless since I don’t have gallery representation. But financial value is not what drew and what still draws me to the photographs I make or own. What I did not buy I received as a gift, often by either friends or by photographers whose art I deeply admire. I give a rat’s ass about what those photographs are worth monetarily. Their real value for me lies in their visual power, in the firm grasp they have on my imagination.

With this attitude - and given my own lack of financial buying power - I am a nonentity for the art market and, frankly, I relish that role. Money is not what drew me to photography. It is my ever growing passion for the experience photography has to offer that drew me to it. This is what has me so troubled over the market craze in photography (which, as a nasty side effect, carries with it the self-promotion-social-media industrial complex).

Why don’t we talk instead about what photographs tell us - regardless how much they’re worth? If Rhein II sells for so much money, why don’t we talk about the photograph? Let the millionaires and billionaires play their games at Sotheby’s, let them fight with oligarchs and sheikhs over their prints and paintings and sculptures and now photographs. None of that adds anything to photography - other than that little further corruption of the soul, when money is taken as the most important measure of a photograph’s value.

1 The exact number is $4,338,500.
2 The Telegraph published a list of the ten most expensive photographs here.
3 Florence Waters begs to differ: “the photograph is a statement of dedication to its craft” - for me, that’s not a serious reason, since I think that any serious photographer is (or at least should be) dedicated to her/his craft. Also see Jakob Schiller’s article for another attempt to justify the price tag.

Photo (c) and courtesy Will Steacy - Thank you, Will!