A picture can paint a thousand words, they say, and it captures and freezes memorable events of a person’s life. Whether it be the birth of a child, the first steps taken, the first day of school, graduation day, birthdays, weddings, summer vacations, foreign trips, etc, taking a picture will allow you to keep a special moment forever. And sometimes, you do not even need a special occasion for that special moment. That is why cameras have become ubiquitous parts of our lives. We try to capture everything in a photograph so that we will have a visual reminder of our memories.
The advance in technology has made it that much easier to own a camera. While before, one has to go through the hassle of buying a film, loading it, hoping you get all the settings right, clicking judiciously because of the limited number of shots allowed by the film, and developing the film before you can see the actual results, cameras have since gone digital. You do not need to buy and load film anymore, you can click away to your heart’s content, and you do not even need to study the right settings, because the camera can do practically everything for you. Cameras have also been included in smart phones, which means that you can now take pictures even without the bulky digital cameras that we used to carry along.
While the pictures you have taken may be priceless for you because of the memories that come along with it, there are other photographs that simply capture an unforgettable moment no one else can possibly replicate. Thus, we have memorable pictures, like Robert Capa’s photo of a Spanish Civil War soldier at the exact moment he was shot, or the photo of a rescue worker in Oklahoma cradling a baby after a terrorist bombing, or the shot of a child dying of hunger during the famine in Ethiopia, or the picture of the Vietnamese children running and crying after a napalm attack. Also stuck indelibly in the minds of the viewers are photos like Michael Jordan’s winning jumper in the 1998 Finals of the National Basketball Association, or of Mary Decker after falling down in an Olympic race, or the image of Robert Kennedy lying down after being shot in a hotel in Los Angeles.
These photographs, memorable as they may be, are not even the most expensive pictures ever taken. Of course, the fact that they are news photos published around the world probably depreciated their price, even though the historical values are as high as ever. They are not as expensive, however, as the photographs taken by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall or Edward Steichen.
Steichen is known for The Pond Moonlight, a 1904 picture that sold for $2.9 million in a Sotheby’s auction in 2006. Wall took a picture entitled Dead Troops Talk in Afghanistan in 1986 that sold for $3.7 million in 2012. Sherman’s untitled pictures sold for $2.7 million in 2010 and $3.9 million in 2011. A photograph of Billy the Kid was also auctioned off for $2.3 million in 2011.
Sherman, Steichen and Wall, however, all pale in comparison to the works of Andreas Gursky, who took the most expensive photograph in the world.
Man Behind the Lens
Andreas Gursky is a German photographer and visual artist known for his landscape color pictures and large format architecture. He took up the hobby early in his life, as his father was a commercial photographer. His teachers trained him to have a methodical approach in doing large-scale photography, meaning it should be distinctive yet dispassionate. At the same time, noted British photographer John Davies, who employed a high vantage point in his detailed photographs, influenced him.
While he was initially averse to manipulating his pictures digitally, Gursky learned the value of computer editing and enhancement to create spaces larger than the subjects that were photographed. Just like Davies, he took pictures from an elevated point of view, thereby allowing the viewer to see scenes that are normally not included from standard vantage points. His style of taking pictures is straightforward, with no explanation needed. His favorite subjects are large and anonymous spaces.
One of his works, the 99 Cent II Diptychon, a picture he took in 2001, was so engrossing for picture connoisseurs that three prints have all sold for millions of dollars. Sotheby’s auctioned off the first one in the middle of 2006 for $2.25 million. A second print was sold at a gallery in New York towards the end of that same year for $2.48 million. Early in 2007, a third copy was sold in a Sotheby’s auction in London for $3.3 million.
The Most Expensive Photograph in the World
But the 99 Cent II Diptychon did not even prove to be Gursky’s most expensive work. In 2011, a picture he took in 1999 entitled Rhein II was auctioned off for $4.3 million, making it the most expensive photograph in the world. It was originally owned by the Galerie Monika Spruth, which is based in Cologne. The ownership then transferred to an anonymous German collector, before Christie’s auctioned it off in New York. The winning bidder was not announced.
The image shows the River Rhine flowing horizontally across the picture between two green fields, with an overcast sky above. The picture was manipulated digitally to remove unwanted elements from the picture, including dog walkers and a factory building. It measures 73 by 143 inches, and it is enclosed in a glass frame that measures 81 by 151 inches.
Various critics have acclaimed the photograph. Florence Waters, an arts writer for The Daily Telegraph, described the picture as “vibrant, beautiful and memorable…unforgettable…(with a) contemporary twist on the romantic landscape.” Maev Kennedy of The Guardian gave a straightforward description that is suitable to the straightforward photographic style of Gursky when he described the picture as a “sludgy image of the grey Rhine under grey skies.”
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