Photography as an art form came of age in the 20th century and has been used to capture some of the world’s most iconic and indelible images. It also happens to potentially be one of the most lucrative creative outlets there is, as evidenced here by the tewelve most expensive photographs ever sold.
These images are distinctive for their stylistic innovation, their bold social commentary, and their unique composition- not to mention their dazzling commercial value.
However, it’s important to point out that there is some controversy around the title of the “most expensive photograph ever.”
In 2014, Australian photographer Peter Lik claimed to have sold an image titled Phantom for a grand total of $6.5 million. However, this claim is disputed, and the “anonymous buyer” has never come forward. This has led to accusations that the sale never took place, or that it was a publicity stunt. Though a lawyer has asserted that the buyer apparently does exist, there remain significant unanswered questions surrounding Lik’s claim to the title.
Phantom is certainly a distinctive piece of work, but as its claim to be the most expensive photograph cannot be substantiated, we have opted to exclude it from this list. With that in mind, here is a run-down of the twelve most expensive photographs whose sales have been proven beyond doubt:
List of the Most Expensive Photographs
1. Rhein II by Andreas Gursky
German Visual artist Andreas Gursky created Rhein II in 1999. Gursky is one of the most revered landscape photographers in the world, and Rhein II shows the artist at the top of his game. It is an image of exquisite symmetry and simplicity, which shows a stretch of the River Rhine. This masterpiece of overcast starkness spliced by color was in fact digitally enhanced by the artist in order to remove what he considered to be extraneous details, such as a factory building and a few dog walkers. The resulting photograph was sold at auction for $4.3 million dollars to an anonymous collector in 2011.
2. Spiritual America by Richard Prince
Richard Prince is a pioneer of what has become known as “appropriation art.” As such, he makes extensive use of existing photographs by other artists, re-photographing and reframing them to create a fresh work in a new context. As such, his work is frequently taken as a comment or critique of mass-media and marketing, examining as it does the proliferation of images in Western culture, and the mimetic quality of advertising.
Spiritual America is a startling and highly controversial critique of the cultural preoccupation with sexuality which depicts a 10-year-old Brooke Shields standing in a bathtub- in fact it is a 1983 “re-photographing” of an earlier image by Garry Gross. In the face of considerable outcry among the artistic community, it was sold by Christie’s for just under $4 million in 2014.
3. Untitled #96 by Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman has carved out an interesting niche as a self-portraitist, creating many photographs of herself in different scenarios ranging from the mundane to the outright fanciful.
Untitled #96 has been characterized as a feminist work, challenging the conventional representation of women in art. It shows the photographer lying on a tiled floor in a domestic setting. The look on her face is pensive and enigmatic, and has invited a wealth of interpretations as to its intended meaning.
There are many seemingly minor details which require careful consideration, such as the way in which the shade of the subject’s clothing seems to blend into the color of the tiles, or the fact that she is holding a torn scrap of newspaper in her right hand. It was sold by Christie’s in New York for $3.9 million in 2011.
4. Untitled #93 by Cindy Sherman
As with Untitled #96, this work depicts the artist herself. Untitled #93 has proved highly provocative for its image of a young woman lying in bed with full make-up and unkempt hair in beaming daylight. However, any sexual interpretations of the work have been disputed by the artist; Cindy Sherman claims the photograph is an evocation of a hangover after a whole night’s partying. Untitled #93 sold for $3.8 million in 2014.
5. To Her Majesty by Gilbert & George
The eccentric British duo Gilbert & George have been producing calculatedly controversial works for over 50 years. By their outrageous standards, To Her Majesty is comparatively tame. It is a sequence of silver gelatin prints depicting the artists themselves in various stages of drunkenness – the title is an example of the pair’s ironic self-aggrandizement, as well as an alcohol-fueled toast: “To Her Majesty!” Christie’s of London sold the work for $3.8 million in 2008.
6. Untitled (Cowboy) by Richard Prince (1998)
This is another example of Richard Prince’s trademark re-photography. It depicts a Time Magazine ad featuring the famous “Marloboro Man” in full cowboy gear, attempting to rein in a horse which rears up dramatically. The image itself is a bold composition evoking archetypes of Americana and masculinity, but the act of re-photography places it in a more critical perspective. Using the motif of the cowboy, Prince raises big questions concerning American identity and commercialism. This image was sold for $3.7 million dollars in 2014.
7. Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) by Jeff Wall
Dead Troops Talk is a fascinating tableau depicting the aftermath of a fictional battle from the Soviet-Afghan war. It is a highly surreal and macabre piece of work in which the dead Soviet soldiers have returned to life, albeit still bearing the mortal wounds they sustained in battle.
The gruesome nature of the subject matter is actually a carefully crafted visual effect, designed to evoke Goya’s famed print series The Disasters of War. As such, the piece is a visceral comment on the nature of conflict.
The artist, Jeff Wall, is a leading exponent of the “Vancouver School” and his work (and Dead Troops Talk in particular) has been praised by such luminaries as Susan Sontag. Specifically, she has referred to Dead Troops Talk as “exemplary.” It is a decidedly eerie and hallucinatory piece of work of undeniable power, which was sold for $3,666,500 at Christie’s of New York in 2012.
8. Untitled (Cowboy) by Richard Prince (2000)
Another appearance in this list for Richard Prince, and another of his famed cowboy prints. As with the 1998 photograph, this is an example of Prince’s audacious re-photographing technique, and again it is a reproduction of an image which evokes the ultimate in both masculinity and the American ideal.
In this image, the cowboys march in silhouette through the morning mist. In its own right it is a haunting work, but thanks to Prince’s bold re-contextualization, it becomes a challenge to consumer culture and the very nature of American identity in the latter half of the 20th century. It was sold at Christie’s for $3.5 million in 2016.
9. Untitled (Cowboy) by Richard Prince (2001-2002)
A fourth appearance on this list for Richard Prince, and a third of his cowboy images. Significantly, this work dates back to the aftermath of 9/11, which gives its subject matter all the more poignancy. It is another image of the fabled “Marlboro Man,” this time sitting alone against a backdrop of a setting sun. It sold at Sotheby’s for $3.4 million in 2007.
10. 99 Cent II Diptychon by Andreas Gursky
Here, Andreas Gursky presents an image of the interior of a supermarket, with the neatly arranged shelves and boldly-colored products create a sense of almost phantasmagoric larger than life brashness. As with Gursky’s image of the Rhine, this has been digitally altered to reduce perspective, which gives it even more of a dizzying and hallucinatory quality. It can be read as a comment on consumerism, with rows upon rows of products all but blinding the viewer with their ferocious color. It was sold for $3,346,456 at Sotheby’s in 2007.
11. Chicago Board of Trade III by Andreas Gursky
By turns stunning and horrifying, this image demonstrates the inestimable power of the almighty dollar. It shows stockbrokers hard at work on the trading floor, and evokes both adrenalin-fueled enterprise and desperation. In a way, it serves as an effective counterpoint to the 99 Cent II Diptychon, as the composition of the herd of stockbrokers is no less bewildering and challenging to the viewer than that of the sea of supermarket products, vying for attention. It sold for $3,298,755 at Sotheby’s in 2013.
12. Noire et Blanche by Man Ray
Something of an outlier among the other artworks on our list, Noire et Blanche was created by the world-renowned surrealist Man Ray in 1926. As the title indicates, it is a black and white image depicting the model Kiki de Montparnasse posing with an ornately carved African mask. It was sold at Christie’s of Paris for $3,131,533 in 2017.