Value Added?

This week the record for the sale of a Photograph was broken when a German collector sold one of six copies of Andreas Gursky’s 1999 work “Rhein II” at Christie’s for $4,338,500.

When I look at this as a Photograph and ignore what the Art World tells me its worth, my valuation comes in considerably under that price. My theory is that collectors, gallerists, auctioneers, the art media, art schools and artists themselves are in a kind of unwitting conspiracy to ‘Add Value’ to what is very often extremely poor and unimaginative easy to make work.

Andreas Gursky, Rhein II (1/6) 1999.

If you walked into a gallery and saw this picture on the wall and new nothing about it, how much would you be prepared to pay for it?

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UPDATE: Joerg Colberg’s post on the value of the Gursky

UPDATE: Cartier Bresson reaches new record price at auction of $590,455

15 thoughts on “Value Added?”

  1. Dear Nick. As a photograph this is one that may not have been too difficult to make.
    Having said that I find the colours and their balance, and the tones quite pleasing.
    As a photograph not worth much. As a work of art? Well that’s a whole other matter for discussion that can be debated about for days, weeks and years to come.
    On one hand art is supposed to stimulate, inspire, convey something or other, to the viewer, and to provoke. This photo has accomplished the latter.
    As for the sticker price on this work of “art”? Well I’d be interested in hearing from the people who were bidding on it (this didn’t get to almost 5million on it’s own). I’d also like to hear from the owner. Who knows? He/she may have got caught up in a game of one upmanship.
    I’d like to hear more about this photo and others like it in the future. If nothing else (and in terms of art) it is an expensive statement on many levels on the state of the human condition.
    Kindest regards,

  2. You are removing factors that make it sell for such figures. The fact that it is the 1st print of an edition of 6, and that the other 4 are expected to be in public collections. The fact that it says A. Gursky on the back.

    Recall the portrait taken of the Queen and Prince Philip by Thomas Struth. Its a relatively normal photograph. You could assume it was lit primarilly with natural light, and shot on an 8×10 camera. Anyone could have taken that photograph if they had: the privelege of the comission, an 8×10 camera, and some knowledge on using natural light. For the sake of the argument, I could have taken that photograph, or you could have taken it. The fee that you or myself would have charged would have probably been an order of magnitude out compared to Struths. And the only difference would be the name on the back of the print.

    The ‘newest’ painting in the expensive list is ‘Eight Elvises’ 1963 by Andy Warhol, sold for $100 million. Lets say you saw this picture on the wall and knew nothing about it, how much would you pay for it? Certainly not $100 million. You can’t deconstruct the price of art like that. It sells for however much someone pays for it.

    Unimaginate and easy doesn’t come into it. Jackson Pollock’s painting that sold for $140 million is very imaginative, but quite easy. Simply flick paint from your brush onto canvas and it will resemble a Pollock. The same can’t be said for a Vermeer or Van Gogh etc.

    You must get your head around the misconception that in order for Art to be expensive or ‘a masterpiece’, it must be painstakingly hard to make. think of Marcel Duchamp and his urinal. Its a urinal, with a fictional signature inscribed on the side.

    Think of wine. I could buy a bottle of chateau la tour for hundreds of thousands of pounds. But no more effort or complicated working methods were put into this expensive bottle, than a £30 bottle of wine from a shop.

    I’m sure when Damien Hirst cut up a cow and calf and put them in Formaldehyde people were saying similar things of how its unimaginative and easy to do – its less about the skill of accomplishment, and how anyone could do it.

    I would have thought all photographers would be able to argue against this, as often the statement of ‘well, anyone can take a photo’ arises quite often. It appears that there are people out there who still don’t believe Photography to be a valid art form. What if this piece of art, instead of saying ‘c-type’ said ‘oil on canvas’. It wouldnt be hard to believe that people wouldnt argue as much.

  3. Dave, thank you for your comment, I personally find most of the examples you list (with the exception of Struths portrait of the Queen) to be more valuable, creative and imaginative than this Gursky.

    The fact that it is in public collections really means nothing to me, they are run by curators who are very much part of the conspiracy to which I refer.

    As a young painter myself I pursued Abstract Expressionism and as a photographer now I know it is far more difficult than the making of this Gursky.

    There is the most extraordinary talent and imagination out there in both art, photography and where the two collide, trust me, this is not the pinnacle of it.

  4. I can empathise towards you. When the most expensive photo was an Edward Steichen it seemed to be too much about the photographic-object. That changed when it was the gursky 99cent store. I prefer the 99cent store to the rheine photograph. Theres a wealth of colour, the size, the scale, the overall veracity of the image, and possibly the irony of the contents of the store etc being less that its photographic equivelent. What that photograph said for photography as art was brilliant. In terms of money, the photograph is ‘better’ than the real thing.
    That being said, the Rheine photograph is very banal. It doesn’t excite me in the same way as the previous gursky. But perhaps this is also a comment on the current state of the high art photography world. Its safe to say that the price depicts more about the art world than the photograph does.

    I’d highly recommend the BBC documentary ‘The Worlds Most Expensive Paintings’ by Alastair Sook. It covers the problems associated with high art. Most notably a distasteful applause when a painting was sold, not for the artwork, but for the money. How some paintings are bought and kept hidden. The majority of the people buying the art, don’t care about the art.

    They want to be the person who owns the most expensive photograph in the world. They also have total power by choosing to place a record bid on the photograph. There is also the people who are buying into it as an investment. Gursky is a recognised name in art, in the same way that Apple is a recognised name in consumer electronics.

    I fully agree with you that this photograph is not the pinnacle of talent and imagination etc. Its all very subjective but i always find the most brilliant art is always the most underated and overlooked art.

    The great majority of peoples views are forced upon them. Take for instance the Taryn Simon at the tate modern. Personally i think the portraits are very bland and arent good enough on their own, hence the need for supporting text, and then supporting materials. But because it is in the gallery, people believe it to be amazing. They may not know why themselves, but they know that for it to be on the tate modern walls, it must be brilliant, so brilliant they cant understand it.

    I’m sure you can agree there is a degree of similarity between this, and the sale of the latest gursky.

  5. Dave

    I agree with a great deal of what you say here, I did much prefer the 99cent store image of Gursky for similar reasons, I didn’t love it or think it was the best photograph in the world but I understood it’s appeal, I actually quite like Cindy Sherman’s work as well, I see an intellectual rigour behind the image and it’s place in her body of work. Neither of those images made me feel like I was having the wool pulled over my eyes by some art world slight of hand in the way this Gursky does.

    Thanks for recommending the BBC documentary, I’ll see if I can find it.

    I am aware of a double standard at play between the way photographers are treated and the way artists using photography are treated, the artists get hailed for practices that photographers take as read, their work is less important than the list of shows and public collection inclusions on their bio. I see, right now, young photographers with very mediocre work slowly getting recognition because of the game they are playing with all the right people, going to the right openings, working for the right photographers, entering the right awards…it’s very interesting to observe. I think this is the process by which we see this poor work being eventually hailed and championed.

    There are very few people prepared to face vilification by standing up and saying “wait a minute people, this is nonsense” especially when you are against the momentum of the art institutions who are making money from this illusion and keen to maintain it.

  6. I wonder if Gursky ever has a moment of unease about this. Of course we would all welcome such a deception and would believe in the whole process. Yes, I deserve it, etc. But paying that price for such an ordinary photograph is stupid and pretentious. This sort of thing always agitates me. Oh artists that use photography indeed. Somebody is being used. I’m going to have another cup of tea otherwise my rant might go on. My box of teabags cost £1.80 or something. I’m a photographer that uses teabags to make tea.

  7. I admire the work of Gursky and many of the other Dusseldorf School photographers. Cindy Sherman’s ‘value’ as an artist I understand, her work is of less interest to me. This article has appeared in many forms since the art of ideas gained primacy over skill-based arts such as representational painting. The prices are governed by the self-interest and self-justifications of galleries and dealers true, but if I stand in front of 15 ft of Gursky photograph, I’m blown away in the same way I was in front of Struth’s work at the Whitechapel this summer. We all have opinions on this but I support fully the elevation of photography as a highly valued art form and believe it raises the profile of photography generally. The ‘Emporer’s New Cloths’ argument can be a bit tired and Daily Mail for my liking. Photography is this delightful broad church and Gursky’s place within that church adds vitality to the medium and makes me, for one, a happy member of the congregation.

  8. Thanks for your thoughtful post Paul, my initial response is that clearly these more conceptual or ,as you put it, ‘art of ideas’ fail in one crucial aspect and that is they fail to communicate those ideas to the majority (whatever newspaper they read) and that is why the whole ‘Emperors New Clothes’ debates arise and why we get a general disbelief when a picture like the Gursky above is hailed as it has been. I’m not arguing for a dumbing down of art photography but I am arguing that a BA should not be required in order to have a stab at understanding the artists intention.
    For me this conceptual photography fails to utilise the mediums technically imposed constraints which is why you have to read an A3 sheet of text on the gallery wall to find out what’s going on.

    The Dusseldorf School aimed photography at The Art Gallery at a time when the Art Gallery was casting around for something to revitalise it, that is were the conspiracy began and where, in my opinion, relevant, meaningful photography lost its place to multiple square hectares of bland Gursky and Struth.

  9. I voted in the “worth more than $4m” category.

    For a number of reasons. First, on a personal level, I really like Gursky’s work. And having seen some full scale original prints of his, they blew me away. Secondly, again on a personal level, it’s perverse I know but I ‘get’ the whole Dusseldorf school movement. Not that I love every photographer and photo ever associated with it, but I enjoy the clean stripped down compositions, concentrating on the essence of the subject, even the typologies. Typologies have been overdone and over-copied since admittedly, but that is just a measure of the success of the originals – copying is the sincerest form of flattery.

    More generally, if photography is being appreciated and valued, then that is good news. People are willing to pay £30 million transfer fees for a footballer who will play in a few games then disappear, but find paying a tenth of that for an iconic art work, a creative work, part of history, that will last a long time.

    Paintings regularly sell for sums that make the Gursky print price look like chicken feed. Why should we value photography less? It’s ironic that it is photographers who are expressing outrage at the amounts being paid for photography, while letting eye watering sums being paid for other forms of art pass without comment. Is it a form of self-flagellation?

    A lot of very rich people pay outrageous sums for luxury items. An iPad being sold for £5 million. Superyachts being sold for several hundred million. And so on. That may be obscene, but when rich people actually start to do some good by pay relatively small sums for something that is actually creative, a work of art, why do we get so outraged by it?

    Whether or not Gursky falls within one own’s personal taste or not is almost irrelevant. Lots of people do appreciate and value it. I do. And, like it or not, Gursky’s photography has an important place as in the history of art.

  10. p.s., I just saw Nick’s reply in the post above. I wouldn’t describe Gursky’s work as bland – if you’ve seen his 20 foot long print of Formula 1 racing cars in the pits, and it’s one of the most spectacular images I’ve ever seen. Digitally composited, yes, but beautifully done, and visually spectacular.

    I also wouldn’t describe is as particularly conceptual. It may have ideas behind it, and curators may base careers on intellectualising it, but it’s first and foremost visual impact that is at it’s heart, it doesn’t really for its impact on being conceptualised.

    Personally, I have some reservations about the extent of digital manipulation, which is a personal taste, but I can’t deny the visual power and impact of the imagery. As for the one that sold for the record sum, it might not be my first choice, but I haven’t seen an original print of it, which is critical with Gursky, so can’t comment. It’s one of the problems with the internet – evaluating large format photographs on the basis of 400 pixel previews, which leads to a dumbing down of photography and a need to make everything big and obvious and colourful in the frame if the image is to get any attention of internet forums…

    Just my opinion.

  11. p.p.s. also thought I should mention: that I agree with what Nick says about disliking photography that relies only on conceptual interpretation for its value. I just don’t think Gursky comes into this category.

  12. I think Simon’s point about Gursky’s work not just falling into the conceptual category is valid. As I mentioned, to stand in front of many of his images is, to me and many others, a profound experience reaching well beyond the ideas behind his work (globalisation for example) or his personal motivations (he, like most photographers, chooses subjects that he has a passion for. That is one of the most basic urges that all photographers can identify with). I consider his work transcendent in the way that an artwork is supposed to be, untroubled by notions of value or the capacity in modern art to make us think more than feel. This is a personal view that I’m sure many people share, just as sure as many will find his work (and that of many ‘Objective’ photographers) sterile, if with some merit (but not 2.7 million quids worth!).

  13. Nick,

    This article might shed some light on the issue. So would the nonsense speeches of this book’s main character. I voted $100, but then quickly realized it would be a steal for such a big print – and rather worthless to me as I have no wall that big to display it on. I haven’t seen “Rhein II” on display but I trust it is probably worth whatever the buyer was prepared to pay for it, conspiracy or otherwise. Off to my cup of tea.

  14. There’s no simple way to explain why an image like this sells for 4.5 million dollars. If you look at Gursky’s work over the years its apparent that he’s an artist who is in the right place, at the right time, and is making work that resonates with society. The 4.5 million dollar price tag is a result of this, along with printing at a huge size and having only a limited edition printed.

    That being said… this photograph alone is not worth 4.5 but you add the artist’s reputation, his other work, etc. it all adds up to break a world record price tag for a photograph.

  15. I agree with most of the other commentators here in the general argument about the cost of the picture.

    But additionally, I think your piece comes across as a bit gripey. Clearly, you aren’t naive, and you know the arguments already. You’re not really the person who walks into an art gallery and says ‘my 12 year old could have done that’. Except that you are as I read that earlier article you wrote!! But honestly you just aren’t really that naive. So why? Are you just trying to drum up an argument? Or is irritation simply the driving factor behind the articles? I think ‘gripey’ is a shame because I perceive you as a leader and a very positive one (re in-Public and street photography). Well fair enough everyone gets irritated by things and it is very irritating this ALL or NOTHING situation, where famous names earn stratospheric amounts and excellent artists who aren’t international names find it difficult to earn a living. But don’t be disingenuous. It makes it hard to maintain belief in your integrity somehow.

    The selling of this art work is really about moving large amounts of money around, storing large amounts of money, avoiding tax and investing.

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