Not all photography prints are created equal
Much like lenticular art, photography is a medium with no true “original” artwork; some may consider a film negative as an original, but it can’t be enjoyed as the photographer intended, so is perhaps just a unique tool to create the artwork. But not all photography prints are just a print; one produced to the highest standards, in limited quantities, with oversight and approval by the photographer, can reach the same high prices as unique or exceptional art prints by artists like Warhol, Picasso, and Rembrandt.
Much like the list of high value art prints, several names appear repeatedly, such as German photographer Andreas Gursky. One of the most consistently high value photographers, ten Gursky art prints have sold for more than $2 million, and three have sold above $3 million. The large format photographer takes breathtaking wide images of large interiors and landscapes, such as his captures of the brokers floor at the Chicago Board of Trade, and the vast, colourful arrays of packaging in a 99 cent supermarket. Both also feature subtle digital manipulation; combining exposures to create a sense of movement on the trading floor, or reducing perspectives in the supermarket to present an abstract wall of colourful boxes.
American painter and photographer Richard Prince is another regular, with five pieces selling above $3 million. His style re-photographs pre-existing images, placing them in a new context; the Cowboys series, from which four individual prints have sold for over $3 million, involved photographing cowboys from Marlboro adverts, and painting over them to give the image a new tone, colour, and feeling. Whilst some people may feel re-photographing a photograph hardly constitutes a new artwork, this is far from the most controversial aspect of Prince’s work further up the list.
Just six photographers have sold prints at auction for over $3 million
Modern artist Man Ray’s photograph Noir et Blanche from 1926 has sold for just over $3.1 million; the image was first printed in Vogue and features an expressionless white model, with a face much like a mask, holding a black mask in an African style and juxtaposing the two. Taken during his surrealist period, the work reflects Ray’s interest in African art, and also features the model Alice Prin, a well known face in Paris’ bohemian community, who Ray fell in love with.
Canadian photographer Jeff Wall’s print from 1992, Dead Troops Talk, who creates his photography prints by staging a complex scene with actors and sets, in this case imagines an attack on Soviet soldiers by Afghan Mujahideen during the war of the 1980s. The work feels something like documentary, but on closer inspection the soldiers are rising from the dead, and showing each other their wounds and missing limbs, a print of it sold for almost $3.7 million.
And selling for marginally more, the Gilbert & George art print To Her Majesty, from 1973, began to cement their vision as living sculptures, breaking from the performance art which established them in the art world to begin experimenting with photography. The series drinking sculptures featured images of the artists drinking, commemorating several evenings of drinking during the early 70s, and featuring black and white photos laid out in several grid patterns.
Three photographers dominate, though it may be four
Several photographic prints have sold for just under $4 million, including two by American artist Cindy Sherman, both of which use her trademark “film still” style. Most of Sherman’s photographs are self portraits of the artist styled, posed, and performing as if in a film still. The focus is very much on the styling and facial expression to evoke a momentary mood or association, and comment on the conventional portrayals of women in film. A series of twelve images titled Centrefolds, included Untitled #96 and Untitled #93, which are the third and fourth most expensive art prints sold at auction.
Richard Prince also re-appears just short of $4 million, with his most controversial piece from 1981, Spiritual America, a re-photograph of Garry Gross’ controversial nude photo of the American actress, a then ten year old Brooke Shields. Styled in high glamour adult make up, and depicted fully nude standing in a steaming bathtub, the original image set out to provoke, but Prince went further. Re-photographing the image with barely any changes, he exhibited a single print of it and nothing else in an empty store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and invited the art world to an opening. By taking the image out of the neutrality of a gallery or collection, Prince cast his audience into the uncomfortable position of having travelled all the way to the Lower East Side just to look at a naked ten year old Brooke Shields.
At $4.3 million, Andreas Gursky’s 1999 Rhine II at first glance is little more than abstract lines, but on closer inspection depicts the Rhine and surrounding fields and paths, at an exceptionally flat and featureless point in the river, made even more so with Gursky’s subtle digital editing. Somewhat divisive, some critics see it as a striking contemporary take on a typically romanticised landscape, whilst others describe it as sludgy and grey.
And then, there is Peter Lik’s photograph, Phantom. The Australian landscape photographer’s work is exceptionally accomplished, has amassed a huge volume of print sales, and his image of dust caught in the light of a rock canyon is very attractive. However, his highest auction sale was for less than $16,000, and his highest confirmed private sales of photography prints are for around $200,000, so, much skepticism met Lik’s claim that a single print had been sold privately to an anonymous collector for $6.5 million in 2014.