A print of Andreas Gursky’s “Rhein II” sold for $4.33 million last week, making it the most expensive photo ever sold at auction. This might be considered good news for the fine-art photography market, but most of the press about the sale has ranged from puzzlement to downright mockery.
Some of the criticism is of the predictable, my-4-year-old-could-do-that type of scoffing, but some seems to be genuinely wrestling with just how stark and plain this digitally retouched image looks, at least online. We can’t remember anyone writing this way about Gursky’s previous record setter, the diptych “99 Cent Store,” or about the Cindy Sherman self portrait that is now the second most expensive photo ever sold.
Here are some sample comments about Gursky’s “Rhein II”:
“It’s nice. Is it $4.33 million nice? We don’t get art sometimes. Okay, all the time.”
–Dan Amira, New York magazine
“…While it is hard to argue that he [Gursky] has achieved his aim – it is even harder to see why someone would pay a substantial sum of money to own the piece.
But the digitally altered – and some might say visually uninteresting – ‘Rhine II’ has become the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction.”
–Charles Walford, The Daily Mail
“It’s not worth a penny over $4.2 million if you ask me, but at least one collector disagrees.”
–Amy Rolph, Seattle Post Intelligencer
“This mediocre pic is the most expensive photo in the world, worth $4.3 million dollars. Behold! It’s some…grass…and we’re pretty sure that’s a– lake? Right? Maybe?”
-Jo Pincushion on ESPN1420.com (a sports radio station’s Web site. Zheesh, everyone’s a critic.)
One dissenting voice is that of Florence Walters. Writing in the Telegraph, she says, “This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable – I should say unforgettable – contemporary twist on Germany’s famed genre and favorite theme: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature.” She also notes, “For all its apparent simplicity, the photograph is a statement of dedication to its craft.”
For those who would like to judge for themselves, other prints from the same edition are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, Munich’s Pinakothek der Modern, and the Glenstone Collection in Potomac, Maryland.