Peter Lik claims to be the world’s most famous photographer. The most sought-after photographer, the most awarded photographer.
Read on to learn more about Peter Lik, his work, and the controversies around him and his art.
Who Is Peter Lik?
Peter Lik is an Australian photographer. He’s best known for his nature and panoramic landscape images. He moved to Las Vegas in 1994, where he opened his publishing company – Lik USA.
Here, he printed and framed his images, which he also sold as part of coffee books, postcards and calendars. Three years later, he published his first book – Australia: Images of a Timeless Land.
After falling off the map for 13 years, he published his next book in 2010. It was a 25-year retrospective coffee table book. And it was aptly named the 25th Anniversary Big Book.
It was a 580-page leather-bound book weighing 40 pounds and containing over 500 images. In the same year, he sold a photograph for US$1 million to an anonymous collector.
This was his highest-priced sale at that time. Actually, it was the 11th highest price ever paid for a photograph. The photograph in question has the title “One”.
It was a shot of the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire, and he stated that only one print of the photo will ever exist.
In the same year, he won the Art in Nature category of the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards from Nature’s Best Photography. This was awarded for his image “Ghost”.
A year after, his “Inner Peace” won a 2011 Windland Smith Rice International Award. It was on display at the Smithsonian for half of 2012.
For Peter Lik, 2014 was a big year. He claims to have sold an image depicting a winter setting of Telluride, Colorado. “Illusion” sold to a private collector for $2.4 million
In December 2014, Peter Lik claimed to have sold an image titled “Phantom” for a whopping $6.5 million, to an anonymous bidder. It would make it the highest price paid for a photograph. Ever.
This claim met with scepticism left and right. The anonymous bidder has not come forward, nor been identified. No details of the sale have been confirmed, even though a lawyer confirmed the sale.
Since then, articles have been pointing out problems with his strategies, sales and general photographic images.
Lik USA, since its first gallery in 1997, has grown substantially. There are four galleries in Las Vegas alone, with another nine dotted around the USA.
On top of this, there was even a Television series called From the Edge with Peter Lik. This aired on The Weather Channel on 31 March 2011 and ran for one season.
The documentary series followed Lik on his journeys across the United States, photographing attractive landscapes. Examples such as the volcanoes of Hawaii, mountains of Montana and Arizona’s Grand Canyon.
For his panoramic images, he shoots with a Linhof 617 Technorama camera, using Fujifilm. For his digital work, he uses Phase One and Nikon cameras.
He prints most of his photos on FujiFlex silver-halide paper. This choice increases the light sensitivity and glows, and helps accentuate the vibrant colours in the print.
Currently, he has published 12 photography books since 1997 and has won eight awards since 2002.
Fake or Not?
Many photographers are famously for having ‘Photoshopped’ their work. Or even making composite images, turning a few images into one.
We can talk about Chema Madoz and David Lachappelle until we’re red in the face. The problem isn’t that they create these fine art, manipulated images. They are transparent about it.
The discussion here is about the landscape photography of Peter Lik. He aims to give us realistic images, yet they seem too good to be true. He isn’t transparent about his work.
Are they real or fake photos?
Viewers, and in particular, buyers of his work need to know if what they are buying is real or not. This is the threshold between documentary and fine art photography.
Although the sale of “Phantom” was the last time where his credibility came into question, it wasn’t the first.
The reason why the sales of “One”, “Illusion” or “Phantom” are not part of the top 20 most expensive photographs ever sold, is because they are suspicious.
There is no proof that these sales ever took place. Anyone could turn around and say that they sold an image for $6+ million. What makes it real?
A photographer saying he sold an image isn’t proof. A lawyer ‘confirming’ a sale isn’t proof either.
With Peter Lik’s “The Phantom”, there is nothing unusual about it. He said himself that he was lining up the shot when the Indian guide threw some dust in the air. This is what gave him the ghost-like impression.
This was to be a simple landscape shot. The artistic vision behind the image was not his. Looking at the list of most expensive photographs, there is not one photograph there of a simple landscape image.
Even the most viewed photograph of all time (Charles O’Rear – Bliss) didn’t make it on the list. Even though the photographer stated he received an extraordinary financial amount.
On top of this, Peter Lik’s “Phantom” isn’t even the first rendition of this image. It is, in fact, a black and white version of Peter Lik’s “Ghost”. Who is paying this much for a desaturated copy?
The sale of ”Ghost” reached $15,860. That is over 409 times cheaper than the black and white version. It doesn’t add up.
“Moonlit Dreams” is an image by Peter Lik, released late in 2017. It is an image that depicts moon photography mixed with landscape photography.
The biggest question here wasn’t the sale, but if this was one of his real or fake photos. Everything in the photographed scene seemed too amazing and perfect to be true.
Many people have been debating whether the elements in the images could have been ‘there and then’ for Peter Lik to photograph it. The majority of people seemed to say no.
- Clouds – The clouds on the bottom left of the moon seemed to go in front of the moon. This would mean, the moon is in front of Earth’s atmosphere.
- Moon Size – The size of the moon seems way too big for any conventional photography – even with a telephoto lens.
- Ambient Light – To see a full moon would mean the sun is directly behind the photographer. Would you get the cliffs and the moon perfectly lit at the same time?
- Light on the Trees – If you look closely at the trees, you’ll see that the light falling on them is coming from the top. This would coincide with the lighting idea from the front/back.
- Copy and Paste – Peter Lik is no stranger to moon photos. So much so, that this moon is exactly the same moon as another one of his images ”Bella Luna”.
- Depth of Field – The moon is 384,400 km away from earth. The cliffs in the image could be a few km away, but we are unsure as what lens or setting Peter Lik is face with. Let’s say the cliffs are 3km away. This means the space between the cliffs and moon is 381,000 km. What lens on earth could keep them both so pin-sharply focused?
Since the image emerged on the internet, there were polls where 90% (over 12,600 people) believed it was fake. Many people contacted the galleries for clarification.
One photographer, Jared Polin, persistently emailed and called the studio. He received an email back in Feb 2018. This was the reply:
“Hi Jared, great to hear from you. Moonlit Dreams is, in fact, a composite photograph,” the representative writes. “We have been open and transparent regarding this topic since before the photograph was released. I do appreciate you reaching out and inquiring. Wishing you a great weekend.”
So there we have it. We are unsure what ‘open and transparent’ means. If they had been, there wouldn’t have been such an uproar.
I don’t think that Peter Lik is the world’s most famous photographer, most sought-after photographer or even the most awarded photographer. This is something he’s said about himself.
His images are as good as most I can find on 500px, from photographers who don’t use Phase One cameras.
Saying that, I don’t think he is the worst. There is quality and experience to the images. But, after everything I’ve read about him, I have to seriously question his integrity.
His images aren’t the best I have ever seen, and they don’t really have any artistic input. These images are good because of the environment he photographs.
Consider this. Out of the 20 most expensive pictures ever sold, 19 of them are from artists using their vision and creativity. Even the 20th (Pantheon – Thomas Struth) isn’t just a location shot.
And the artists in that list are consistent. Out of those 20, Andreas Gursky is there seven times, Richard Prince is there twice, Cindy Sherman pops up six times.
The last five shots come from artists that appeared once on the list. What this says is that artistic visions sell. Shots of pretty landscapes don’t. You may refer to Gursky’s Rhein image II, but that is a composite.
I can hear you say straight away ‘So if Gursky can have a composite, why can’t Peter Lik’. Well, it’s because we already know how Gursky works, and his process is transparent.
Peter Lik has never confirmed that some of his landscapes have had Photoshop treatment, let alone composite care. He either evades the question or ignores it.
His studio released one statement, after being pushed into submission.
His marketing seems to be surrounding the idea that, either planned or not, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. Judging by how many people are in an uproar over his work, it is working.
Peter Lik’s name repeats in comments under negative articles in the hundreds. Other blogs and websites jump on the bandwagon, making Peter Lik a household name.
Oscar Wilde famously said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
So, if no one is talking about you positively, then better to have them do it negatively.
It is quite easy to say that you have sold an image for an inconceivable amount of money to an anonymous buyer. We could all do it. He is one of the only people who could pull it off.
Why? Because he has done it three times so far. $1 million, $2.4 million and now $6.5. The next one will be over $10 million for a simple shot of nature. Again, it would meet with scepticism.
Peter Lik isn’t the best photographer, but he is very good at marketing. Just a second ago, I realised I didn’t know how much he sells his images for. I went online to his gallery page and there are no prices.
Not just the limited editions, but every image – from his shots of Parisian streets to his warm shots of Yosemite National Park.
I understand that he has a limited printing of images, usually 995 (950 normal, 45 artist proof) but really?! Not even a ballpark number?
This feels like walking into a shop where nothing has prices – they make one up just for those who look like they could pay more money.
It feels like a way to value your product way more than it should be. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, as he charges more money for each print in succession.
Number 995 is obviously going to be more expensive than Number 46. Many photographers do this, except they don’t do this for every single one of their images.
It turns out that he has multiple galleries selling hundreds of thousands of prints a year. However, most of his expensive work is still sold to anonymous collectors.
Apparently, the majority of the $440 million of Peter Lik’s sales are through this way. There is no problem with this fact, but without concrete evidence, it didn’t happen.
When collectors buy one of the prints, they do so for two reasons; exclusivity and investment. Either you like the photograph or you believe it will rise in monetary value.
Peter Lik’s images are being resold for less than what they were bought for. This is a sliding scale, as the first image sold from his prints is cheaper than the last (starting at $4000, reaching $17k, ending with $200,000).
Buying an image for $6.5 million is quite steep, especially when the market tells you that his images will only fall in value.
Peter Lik, when talking about his own work, said “It’s like a Mercedes-Benz. You drive it off the lot, it loses half its value”. Even he knows his photography isn’t worth the money people pay.
Love him or hate him, he is selling prints. He is successful; either with landscape photography or moon photography. His business model works for him, as he seems to take home $1.6 a week in sales.
Forgetting about his unproved private sales, his name is spreading like wildfire. We are all talking about him, helping get the word out.
I don’t rate him much as a photographer – his work isn’t special enough for me. I can find many other photographers who are breaking their backs for a few hundred likes on social media.
Whatever he is doing is right for him – it is all making him a ton of money. But his credibility has taken a hit.
The buyers of his art may not be technically proficient, but does it matter? They like his work.
I want to know how the image in the print I’m buying came to be. Whether composite or not. And if a salesperson in his print shop told me something other than what I perceived, I’d be out the door in the next moment.
I believe the buyers of his work need to know the truth – that $17k image is a composite. It doesn’t make it less valuable. you can see there is a lot of work put into every shot.
But there is a difference between ”I came to this place many times and finally got the shot I wanted” and ”I captured part of it and stuck in other elements that I couldn’t capture”.
It is the difference between documentary and fine art. Real and fake photos.