Rhein II: The Most Expensive Photograph Ever Sold

Rhein II

Photographs can possess enormous significance and thus enormous value. Sometimes, this is because the photograph is important in a historical sense, with an excellent example being the photograph of Billy the Kid, who was one of the most notorious outlaws of the Wild West. Other times, this is because the photograph possesses either aesthetic value or some other kind of artistic merit that can convince interested individuals to bid upon it. Whatever the case, there are multiple photographs that have managed to sell for multiple millions of dollars. However, none of them have managed to beat Rhein II, which went for £2.7 million and thus around $4.3 million in 2011.

Who Shot the Photograph?

For starters, it is worth mentioning something about the man who shot the photograph. In short, Andreas Gursky was born in East Germany but came of age in West Germany. He can claim a strong background in photography, not least because he was both the son and the grandson of commercial photographers. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Gursky went on to study photography at what was then the Folkwang Academy, which put him on the path to becoming one of the most successful photographers in the entire world.

Over the course of his career, Gursky has become notable for a number of reasons. For example, he started out as someone who captured photographs using a handheld camera but has since experimented at considerable length with their much bigger counterparts, with the result that he has produced works so big that they can’t be produced without putting multiple pieces together. Likewise, Gursky has cultivated a reputation for photographs that reflect consumer culture as well as other critical components of contemporary living, which include a fair number that have managed to fetch very high prices in the auction houses. On top of this, it should be mentioned that Gursky has been known to use digital manipulation to make various changes to his photographs for the purpose of making them more capable of achieving his desired effect, which is something that has been happening since the 1990s.

Summed up, it should be pretty clear that the photographer behind Rhein II is an experienced professional with an incredible record of success when it comes to his chosen field. Something that isn’t particularly surprising when one considers how everything in the photograph seems to have been chosen with careful intent to produce the same concentrated effect on the viewer.

How Did the Photograph Manage to Fetch Such a High Price?

For those who are unfamiliar with Rhein II, it is a photo of a very small part of the Rhine, which is a storied river that flows from Switzerland through both Germany and the Netherlands. The overall picture projects a sense of neat organization, so much so that it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that it consists of two even expanses of green that are separated by straight-flowing water. In fact, the river runs in such a parallel manner with its banks that one can’t help but wonder how much time and effort Gursky put into ensuring said effect, seeing as how natural rivers aren’t exactly famous for so much symmetry. For that matter, one can’t help but wonder if that isn’t the point to the photograph, seeing as how it isn’t exactly difficult to come up with an interpretation in which it is a commentary on the commodified way in which contemporary society often approaches scenes of natural beauty.

In any case, Rhein II shares a number of characteristics with the rest of Gursky’s photographs. For example, the whole thing was shot from an elevated vantage point, thus enabling him to capture more of the scene than otherwise possible. Likewise, it should be mentioned that the photograph isn’t a perfectly accurate representation of the scene that existed in real life, seeing as how it has been digitally manipulated in order to create the effect that was desired by Gursky. In particular, it is worth mentioning that the scene that existed in real life had a building as well as people in it. These elements were removed by Gursky, presumably because he wanted the viewers to focus on the river plus its surroundings with no potential distractions whatsoever. Certainly, judging by the effect that Rhein II has had on some of the people who have seen it, said choice seems to have paid off in spades.

Regardless, Rhein II was shot in 1999 but went up for auction at Christie’s in 2011. The fact that it managed to fetch so much money is rather remarkable, not least because it makes it very clear that photography can be an art like anything else. After all, the Rhine has been a popular subject for German art for centuries and centuries, but there are very few examples that have managed to bring in anywhere near as much as Gursky’s work.

Further Considerations

Some people might wonder if Rhein II is actually worth the amount of money that was paid for it. After all, while it is a very impressive (and very big) photograph, it is still just a photograph. However, it should be remembered that art is very much one of those things with a value that is highly variable from person to person. As such, so long as someone is willing to pay that much for it, it can be said without error that it is worth that much.

With that said, it will be interesting to see how the list of the most expensive photographs ever sold will continue to change in the times to come. Just because Rhein II is the most expensive photograph to have been sold at this point in time, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other even more potentially valuable photographs out there just waiting for their value to be confirmed through the surest method of verification there is. Furthermore, photographers are producing new works on a regular basis, meaning that it isn’t unimaginable that at some point in the future, something will come along to knock Rhein II off of its throne.


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