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Photography has captivated its audiences ever since the first prints became available for public view, however, even in the modern world which is completely immersed in images the photograph maintains its value as a social, cultural and historical artifact.
Throughout the years certain photos have stood out from the rest, not only for their composition and beauty, but also for their price tags; some of which are pretty astronomical!
Rhein II by Andreas Gursky
This understated photo of the Lower Rhine, in Germany, was taken in 1999 by the photographer Andreas Gursky. It shows the Rhine cutting horizontally across the frame with green banks on either side and a footpath in the foreground.
The sky is gloomy although there is a speckling of sunlight playing on the river’s water. Interestingly, the creator, Gursky, actually used digital editing software to cut out a factory building in the background as well as some dog walkers in the foreground to create this almost abstract chromogenic composition.
Andreas Gursky is a world renowned photographer who is most famous for his architectural and cityscape photography. The composition of this photo is a great example of the use of the rule of thirds and due to its perfect execution it strikes a deep chord with the viewer.
This photo, Rhein II, went on to sell for $4.3 million in 2011, which made it one of the most expensive photographs ever sold at auction.
99 Cent II Diptychon by Andrea Gursky
In this powerfully thought provoking photo of a supermarket stacked with low priced, brightly colored items Andrea Gursky captures a garish portrait of the modern world of fast food and hyper consumerism.
The image is a Diptychon, which is a two part piece shown together, that was originally taken in the late 1990s, probably in 1999. Gursky digitally modified the image in 2001 to change and reduce the perspectives before printing them on acrylic glass. This image was part of a 6 part set, all of which explored the same theme.
The photo was sold at Sotheby’s, in England, for $3.34 million in 2007 becoming the most expensive photo sold in the world, at least until 2011 when Gursky broke his own record selling the Rhein II for even more!
The Pond – Moonrise by Edward Steichen
In this haunting photograph Edward Steichen manages to perfectly encapsulate the feelings of the quiet lake at night. It’s an early example of photography as a fine art and was taken in 1904 in Mamaroneck, New York.
The hint of the moon peeking through the woods adds to the powerful atmosphere of the scene. The similarities of the compositional technique clearly owes a lot to the impressionist painters of the era and goes to show how photographers of the time were striving for their new art form to be seen as a fine art.
The color of the image was created by hand by applying special light sensitive gums to the negative which gives the final print more than one color. The work was painstaking but at the forefront of photographic techniques of the time. This also explains the slightly unusual exposure of the finished piece.
There are 3 versions of this photo that are known to exist but due to the process of hand layering the light sensitive gum each one is quite unique. In 2006, a copy of this photo sold for $2.9 million. The photo’s value is based not only on the excellent composition but also on the fact that it is such a rare treasure from the earliest days of photography. This is literally a one of a kind and consequently went on to become such a priceless collectors item.
Billy the Kid – Original Portrait
Billy the Kid is one of the most famous cowboy highwaymen in American history and is the archetypal image of a rugged individualist who would never bow to authority. His story was made famous in numerous films and has been written about in countless books.
Billy the Kid first made his name as a lethal gunslinger in 1878 when he was involved in a blood soaked frontier battle in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Following several gun fights he left with the reputation of one of the most skilled gunfighters in the West.
However, during one of the battles he shot and killed Sheriff Brady which meant that he was on the run with a price on his head. He was eventually tricked into a meeting and shot to death in 1881 following several years of notoriety and adventures on the road.
This portrait, one of the very few authenticated photos of Billy the Kid, was taken in 1880, just a year before his betrayal and death at the age of 21. Billy the Kid certainly looks the part and this portrait encapsulates an entire era in American folk history.
The photo sold in 2011 for $2.3 million to the entrepreneur and businessman William Koch.
Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman
This deeply disturbing self portrait by the photographer Cindy Sherman was taken in 1985. It shows the photographer lying in the mud resembling a corpse.
This chromogenic print was an instant hit and may have struck a chord in America at the time. During the 1980s horror movies had taken a new place as one of the most popular genres of film and people’s imaginations were ready for such a self portrait. Sherman’s distant stare alienates her from the viewer and creates a sense of mysterious unease that is almost palpable.
Without knowing about the mindset of Cindy Sherman at the time, one can only speculate; however, presenting herself as a corpse in her own photograph could mean that she has given herself over to her artform entirely. Many artists create unusual self portraits to say something deeper about themselves and this is probably in that category.
The photo went for $2.7 million in 2010 and is among the most expensive photos ever sold!
What Makes a Photo So Expensive?
There’s no magic formula that goes into valuing a photograph. Sometimes it has a unique place in history whereas in other cases there is something intangibly perfect about the composition which attracts the top buyers from around the world.
Most of the highest valued photographs are sold at auctions which can help to drive up their price if two big buyers are competing for ownership. Generally speaking though what raises the value of a photograph from thousands of dollars to millions of dollars is that it has some extra quality which is beyond the mere composition and process of creating it.
Which is your favorite photo of all time?
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