Would anyone pay millions of dollars for a photograph? Well, yes, they would! The following list covers the top 10 most expensive photograph sales with some information about the back story of each picture. Some of the photos are technically exquisite and were taken in the days when photography required precision and skill alongside artistic flair, while others are famous because of what or who they portray – or even who snapped the image!
10 Alfred Stieglitz: Georgia O’Keeffe: ‘Hands’: 1919: US$1.47 million (Feb 2006)
Georgia O’Keeffe was an artist whose speciality was painting large images of close-up blossoms, amongst other works. Alfred Stieglitz was one of the photographers responsible for elevating the medium to an art form. Despite his being considerably older than O’Keeffe and already married, the pair got together. Stieglitz took O’Keeffe to his marital home to take the first of several nudes of her. His wife returned during this session and, having already been suspicious of their close relationship, laid down an ultimatum. Stieglitz seized his chance and left with O’Keeffe, turning his back on his wife with barely a second glance. Some of his friends and acquaintances believe that Stieglitz set up the entire scenario to force the end of his marriage, but this has never been substantiated. His photographs of O’Keeffe give us a glimpse, not only into his prodigious skill, but into her personality too. The close-up of her hands taken in 1919 is both expressive and demanding, inviting attention and understanding. It is easy to see why this picture has captured the imagination and hearts of aficionados all over the world, as well as demanding a huge price at auction.
9 Edward Weston: Nude: 1925: US$1.609 million (April 2008)
Edward Weston was born in time for the great age of photography. Stieglitz was the acknowledged master, having worked tirelessly to promote the acceptance of photography as an art form in the years leading up to Weston’s interest in photography. A lonely child, Weston took to photography aged 16 when his father presented him with a camera for his birthday. Weston rapidly learned his trade and took wonderful pictures of landscapes, still-lifes and nudes. The famous nude, taken in 1925 is a close up of a female torso, an elegant arrangement of smooth lines and graceful contours with no genitalia or snigger-inducing areas included. The picture is deceptively simple and demands a lengthy and silent study to appreciate the full impact of the image.
8 Dmitry Medvedev: Tobolsk Kremlin: 2009: US$1.75 million (Jan 2010)
This beautifully composed and crystal clear image of a Serbian fortress (or kremlin) is not only an excellent photograph from a technical point of view; it has a fairly prestigious photographer too! The Russian president Dmitry Medvedev snapped the image which was sold off at a charity auction, outstripping the painting submitted by Vladimir Putin the year before which raised a respectable US$1.1 million. Medvedev’s subject is historically important, being one of the last residences of the Russian czar and his family during the 1917 revolution.
7 Unknown: Billy the Kid: 1879/1880: US$2.3 million (June 2011)
The young man stares out at the world with a bland, slightly bored expression (probably caused by the lengthy wait for the image to be captured on the metal photographic plate!) giving the viewer little idea that he or she is staring at one of the very rare images of that wild-child criminal known all over the world as Billy the Kid. The image, taken all those years ago, when the 20-year-old William H Bonney had about two years left to live, is valuable firstly, because it captures the image of one of the Wild West’s wildest characters, and secondly, because images from those days are so very rare, most of them having degraded or been thrown away over the years. The tintype image may no longer be one-of-a-kind any more as a recent find has uncovered an image showing two handsome young men believed to be Billy-the-Kid’s good friend Dan Dedrick and the Kid himself. The newly discovered picture has not yet been formally accepted as an authentic Billy-the-Kid image, so for the time being, there is only the one authenticated image of the youthful criminal – hence the sky-high selling price!
6 Cindy Sherman: Untitled #153: 1985: US$ 2.7 million (Nov 2010)
Cindy Sherman is no puff-ball photographer, aiming to flatter her subjects and perpetuate the sexualisation of women on celluloid as one might expect from an attractive blonde lady. Rather Sherman seems to have been a pre-Lady Gaga before the iconic pop-star, unafraid to show off the truth of femininity and female-ness, stripped of make-up, fashion, sexuality and sometimes even life. Untitled #153 depicts the artist as a mud-spattered corpse staring sightlessly into the distance against a background of damp grass and mud. The chilling impression is that of a body dump, as though she has been discarded carelessly like an unwanted toy. The image is almost six foot tall ensuring that its impact can be seen and felt from a considerable distance away.
5 Edward Steichen: The Pond-Moonlight: 1904: US$2.928 (Feb 2006)
This dreamy and charming picture is one of the very first attempts at colour photography. The colours had to be applied individually using light sensitive gum as this was before the first commercial colour film had been produced. The photo is 42cm by 40cm and depicts, as the title indicates, the moon rising over a pond, the light spilling softly between the trees and clearly showing the landscape reflected in the water. The image is deemed to be valuable due to its great age, the technical skill required to create it and the uniqueness of each image. There are three known prints of the photograph, but as each had the light-sensitive gums applied to them individually, each is subtly different from the others. Steichen was frequently featured in Alfred Stieglitz’ magazine Camera Work, and he went on to become the first modern fashion photographer, working for magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, as well as finding popularity with advertising agencies.
4 Andreas Gursky: 99 Cent II Diptychon: 2001: US$3.347 (Feb 2007)
This image is something of an unusual one for this list, featuring the slightly overcrowded aisles of a supermarket, with all the products forming a colourful and unusual arrangement. The picture has been digitally altered to tweak the perspective, and the completed work is immense, standing 3.37 tall and 2.07 wide. The entire image is a diptych, which means it consists of two separate pieces which must be hung one above the other to complete the picture. Despite the unlikely subject the work is hugely popular, with copies sold for US$2.48 million and US$2.25 million respectively. Gursky is known for his panoramic images and he has a great following that are prepared to put their money and faith in his works. Keep your eyes peeled for his name recurring further up this list!
3 Jeff Wall: Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986): 1992: US$3.667 million (May 2012)
Jeff Wall’s photograph seems to be aiming to prove the old saying that ‘one picture is worth a thousand words’. The image, portrayed by actors shows what might happen after the battle, when the surviving soldiers have moved on or been deployed elsewhere. The corpses are communication with each other, the fear and hatred of life left behind as they wait for whatever will happen next. Wall’s vision has been compared to that of a movie producer, his vision all the more powerful for capturing in that one image, everything that a film could take 90 minutes to depict. Andreas Gursky cites Wall as one of his influences and inspirations.
2 Cindy Sherman: Untitled #96: 1981: US$3.891 (May 2011)
Cindy Sherman returns to the top 10 with her Untitled #96, a photograph that, superficially, seems to be a nicer offering than the corpse-like image of Untitled #153. Closer inspection and some introspection sees that the model (once again, the photographer herself) lying dejectedly on the floor, a dating advertisement crumpled in her hand. We are left to wonder what happened: did he not turn up? Was he not as advertised? Or did something darker and more distressing happen on the date, leaving her disconsolate on the floor? The power of the picture comes not from what is shown, but rather from what is not shown – there is no visible pain, no tears and no blood, but also no happiness, joy or elation. This blank emotional canvas means that the image will speak differently to each viewer, depending on their point of view and experience.
1 Andreas Gursky: Rhein II: 1999: US$ 4.339 (Nov 2011)
As promised, Andreas Gursky features again! He tops the list having achieved an impressive sum for his piece entitled Rhein II, a deceptively simple picture of a pathway running next to a river, both of those surrounded by lush green grass. The image appears deserted and tranquil thanks to the artist removing dog walkers, pedestrians and even a factory from the image. The photo is large, standing almost 2 metres high and spreading over 3.5 metres wide. The image was acquired by a private collector who remains anonymous, and is said to be a ‘vibrant, beautiful and memorable’… ‘romantic landscape.’