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The World's Most Expensive Photo – What Makes It So Great?

I recently read that the world’s most expensive photo had recently been sold at auction for over $4.3million. Immediately, I was keen to have a good look at it to find out exactly what makes it so great.
My first impression of the photo was that I didn’t like it, not at all…
But then I looked for a few seconds longer and it began to grow on me. Then grow on me even more until I couldn’t stop looking at it.
It’s not often that this sort of thing happens to me. Especially when it’s hard to even distinguish what makes the photo so great in the first place.
The photo is called Rhein II and was taken by Andreas Gursky in 1999.
Worlds most expensive photo Rhein II taken by Andreas Gursky in 1999.
There are other factors involved in the price. The prestige of the artist and the value of their previous work have a role to play too. But I want to look at what makes this photo so good on its own.
If I could paint a Picasso right now, it wouldn’t be worth nearly as much as the same thing painted by Picasso himself. The value doesn’t depend entirely on the image itself but on the significance of the artist as well.
Andreas Gursky is probably the number one art photographer in the world right now. His status, combined with the rarity of the print (it’s the largest and first of only 6 prints), is what made someone spend the money that they did.
Is it worth it?
A photo is worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it so, for the new owner it was worth it but, for you and I, probably not.
Andreas Gursky has had a different photo previously ranked the world’s most expensive. It’s called ’99 Cent’ and it depicts a scene from a supermarket.
There were more visual elements making up that photo.
So Andreas is a very well established photographer with a history of highly priced photos. But I think that a lot of people looking at this photo are thinking, “I could take that”, so why so expensive?
Firstly, there is a very big difference between “I could take that” and “I did take that”. Anyone “could” but “did” requires the initial vision.
He had the required vision to see the image in the first place, followed by the further vision to fix it the way he wanted to.
Yes, this image, although shot in 1999, has been digitalized and photoshopped. Andreas took out the elements that were bothering him which left him with this very mesmerizing photo.
The first thing I noticed was that Gursky has seemingly cut the photo in half with the horizon. This is something I would usually steer away from.
Also, the sky isn’t all that interesting. I probably would have included less of it but I guess that’s one of the reasons that you look at the photo for so long.
It’s also a perfectly straight line. This is uncommon in nature – perhaps that was one of the elements that he photoshopped.
The photo is lacking any really strong visual weights and, with multiple horizontal lines, it looks balanced. The lines reinforce the feeling of strength and earth.
More than anything, the photo gives me a feeling of being very organized. The fact that the lines extend to the end of the frame makes it seem as though they could go on forever.
When you consider that this is in fact a photo of a river, that notion becomes a lot more significant.
Rivers don’t tend to flow in straight lines surrounded by even more straight lines. The photographer is making an observation, showing his feeling towards something and what exactly that feeling is, is up to you to decide.
For me, the river has a feeling of life to it but is being constrained by the straight geometric lines laid out by the modern man. It’s the life and nature of the river being constrained by a manmade footpath.
The colour looks desaturated. This may have been a result either of photoshop or the film that he was shooting on. The whole photo consists of two main colours: gray and green. This is reminiscent of black and white photography, where only two ‘colours’ are used.
The sequence in which the colours are used is also rather interesting. It’s not that common to see blocks of colour broken up like that (in photography) without a recurring sequence.
Gursky has broken some ‘rules’ of composition in the photo. He has done things that I wouldn’t have done because I personally don’t see it as good photography. This just goes to show that the rules are made to be broken.
Learning composition is one of the most important things you can do to improve your photography. When you start to abuse this and instead make photos that work for different reasons, you’re really onto something.
What really sells the photo for me is that it can’t help but evoke certain feelings when you look at it.
Whether it’s a feeling of militant-like repetitive regime, or a feeling of a great expansiveness, or perhaps even a feeling of emptiness, the image makes you feel something.
Gursky has managed to take a seemingly boring and uninteresting image and made us think and feel about it in a way that we usually wouldn’t.
I’m not saying that you or I couldn’t take that photo but, when it comes down to studying the photo, that’s irrelevant.
At this level of photography, it’s not about the composition of the photo but the feelings evoked from it. And f those feelings are strong enough for you – and you have the money – you may well have paid $4,338,500 for it too.
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What Do You Think?

Leave a comment letting me know what you think makes the photo so great, how it makes you feel, and whether you could ever justify paying that much for a photo?
I’m very interested to know what everyone else is thinking.
Check out our new post on the 7 most expensive photographs ever sold.
The World’s Most Expensive Photo – What Makes It So Great?

  1. Honestly I don’t really like it, and think it’s sort of dull. I guess beauty really is in the eye of the buyer… er… beholder.

    1. I found that the more I researched it, the longer I looked at it, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It’s really grown on me, considering I didn’t like it at all on first viewing.

      1. Lol ur just being a pretentious wanker. Its this kind of jackassery amd bullshit in art that makes famous artists get boring like the asshats that just paint a fucking line. And here i thought it was just furries. Some people seriously need to get over themselves.

        1. i agree with josh but i gotta say the biggest the that flipped my opinion is that what sold for 4.3mil is a 6ft by 12ft c-print that really reveals the insane clarity of the photo and the difficulty in making a print like that. this is not an amateur photographer and this is not an amateur photograph. im kinda astonished that the author of this article wrote so much. if anyone is a wanker its the author. im kinda astonished that someone writing on “” would write so terribly and demonstrate such a complete lack of understanding. go look up a picture of someone standing next to the photo and youll see why its impressive. that said 4.3mil is a lot of money and it only sold for that because some people have really deep pockets. but its definitely a great photo.

  2. This photo is alive. It sucks you inside it and turns on your imagination. I liked from the very first moment.

    1. I think you’ve used a good word “sucks”… only in the wrong manner. Come on… the image is a joke people (imo). Sorry but we see this kind of image by amateurs every day and you wouldn’t give it a second thought if had seen it on flickr instead. Think about it!

      1. I find it such an astonishing matter . I think the image should have been deleted or scraped as a mistaken trip of the shutter. I also think that it is an insult to the art of photography to give this worthless image so much credit,the sale price in and of itself make it unequaled art appeal.It makes me sad that some crazy buyer paid that much for one bad photo when so many other great photos go under valued and receive no real worthy attention . My thought!

  3. I have no reaction to this photo. I don’t dislike it and I don’t like it. Honestly, it bores me.

  4. This is an example of the greatness of art… From people who thinks it’s dull to someone who would pay millions. Art is timeless and controversial. Me… Not enamored but then again… I don’t have 4.3M =)

  5. Interesting photo, ridiculous price tag but I still prefer a photo that grabs me instantly and pulls me further in the more I look at it. Good point about the vision though.

    1. Yeah it’s interesting, a few years ago, I wouldn’t have carried on looking, but now I’m really interested by the photo. It all depends on the person viewing I think.

  6. It does have a certain feel to it that makes me look at it, so in that sense I kind of like it. However, it doesn’t evoke a strong enough emotion for me to want to spend any money on it.

  7. It would be interesting to know how you would view it if it was a photo taken by one of your readers. I think you only see it as interesting because the art world has told you it’s interesting.

    1. I think that I would likely have seen it the same way, although there is a slight risk that I may have not looked at if for so long, if I hadn’t known the story about it. As I’d said, the photo grew on me a lot, and I like to think that I would have given the photo the time it deserves if a reader had sent it to me too, but it’s hard to tell.

    2. you hit the nail on the head. If this was a photo that popped up on your facebook newsfeed, I guarantee it wouldn’t get any likes! All it takes is for one idiot who has more money than sense to buy a piece of art and then an artist makes his/her mark in the art world.

  8. Junk by any other name is still junk… unless it was created by someone famous.
    If this was taken and/or photochopped by Joe Nobody, not one word would have been written in defense of his “Vision” or artistic choices. On the other hand, countless paragraphs may be written chastising them.
    The artist’s name is that image’s sole defense. Nothing else.

  9. I was more impressed with it until you said that he photo-shopped it. Although photoshopping is hard I’m more impressed with capturing the moment as it is. It is a whole lot harder to find areas where there is sidewalk and not see signs, or wires, or trash, etc.
    It is still a nice picture but you have to look deeper to see that.

  10. Hello Josh. Excellent review. And you have not seen the original (nor have I) on a gallery/mansion/museum wall yet!!!. Suspect will wind up in Moscow or Berlin. Have a feeling you could happily spend hours, especially without crowds. So could I.Cheers!.
    p.s. are you familiar with Monolab in St. James Street?

    1. I believe there’s a copy in the Tate Modern, but it’s been a few years since I’ve been there. I am aware of the lab, but I’ve not been yet because I’ve just moved to Brighton, is it good? I’m planning on setting up a darkroom in one of my store rooms in the new year.

  11. I liked it when I first saw it and like it more every time I revisit it. The fact that I cannot put my finger on why exactly I like it, makes me love it.

  12. I’ve never heard of the guy so I had no preconception. I also tend to not like what’s popular.
    Looked up the “99 Cent” image you referenced and it too resonated with me instantly. Pure genius.
    Also, I could tell the image above was photoshopped immediately, but I don’t judge any are by it’s method. Only the impression the end result gives me.

  13. I hate to say it, but I find this image dull, boring, uninspired and borderline meritless. I have seen hundreds of landscapes reduced to graphic elements that fill me with awe, inspire me, lead me in and fill me with joy. This is a flat, pedestrian, monotonous scene that is only making people examine if closer because of the price – trust me, your first instincts were correct. You can see what you want to see, but sadly – on reflection – the Emperor has no clothes.
    The art market is no more defined by merit, that the wine investment market is interested in the drinking quality of the wine. It is a closed investment society of artists, dealers, galleries and investors. A high price will add value to other works by the same artist, and can be used as a loss leader to add to the value of another collection. It’s an investment market, nothing more.
    I am not a neophyte, uneducated, artistically ignorant or being obstinate – I have studied art history for over 35 years and am a graduate of the RCA. If you loved Carl Andre’s Bricks, you’ll love this dreck. I am well aware of the size of the piece, resolution and mounting procedure – all are very competent and have nothing to do with either artistic merit or value,

    1. I really don’t give a flyin’ you know what… regarding credentials anyone has, or their experience, etc. I also couldn’t care less what some fool paid for an artistic investment.
      What I care about is how and if the image moves me at all. When I see this image, I’m instantly taken to a place where there is no distraction. There is perfect balance and my mind goes calm.
      If I have a spare few million and knew I could consistently rely on merely viewing an image to take me to that plane of peace and a quiet mind… I’d pay that for it too.

  14. Hey – that’s great! It would be a very boring world if everyone liked the same thing!
    My credentials of course have no bearing on what anyone else likes or doesn’t like – as your credentials have no bearing on my opinion and tastes either.
    If this image makes you feel good, that’s wonderful – I find it banal and boring and I’m sure that most people fit somewhere in the middle.
    The mistake is confusing merit and value.

  15. The very concept of assigning a price to a work of art doesn’t get me. The arguments made about the credentials of the artist maybe valid, but thats merely like spending thousands of dollars on designer wear, merely because its made by a famous designer. Or brand value.
    This picture would probably not have captured as many if it weren’t for the fact that it sold at such a high price. Example, don’t tell anyone this is the worlds most expensive picture, or the name of the photographer.
    Lets see how many appreciate it then.

  16. Well, there is something to be said about a photo being worth what people will pay for it. I’m not sure how they came up with the pricing, but Gursky seems to have quite a large group of fans and followers.
    Surprised to hear about the Photoshop aspect of it though.

  17. I am very familiar with Andreas photography,this particular work has been compared to a painting by Ellsworth Kelly.I don’t really get the Ellsworth Kelly or the dull photoshopped photo of a river.My friend
    who is a art dealer said it was great,but he thought the water colour my 2yr old niece did was great too.But I do have to admit, I did frame it in a very expensive frame and tell him it was a Sam Francis lol. At the end of the day we’re all full of s***. The price of the photo was propped
    up to beat out Cindy Shermans photo as the most expensive.

  18. When I first looked at it, I didn’t like it either. Simply because of the heavy pricetag and my initial expectation that it’ll be better than any of the other commonly awarded photos out there. When we knew about the pricetag, we expected the photo to be so striking but when it turned out with dull colours, dull subject, and dull composition, we’re disappointed. That said, however, once I disregard the pricetag and my expectations of a photo for that pricetag, the photo suddenly seemed to stand out. It’s actually really special. The symmetry, the peaceful and calm colours…

    1. I agree, but it’s been a while since the sale now, and I’ve seen it many times since then, and I have to ask myself, would I still be in awe of it if it was hanging in my house all day, everyday? Probably not worth the money, even if I had it lying around.

  19. Imagine that the image had been taken by a nobody. Would we even be discussing it, let alone waxing lyrical about levels of vision, geometry, harmony, and rule-breaking. The value of this image (above the other 1000’s of equal or greater merit taken daily) is in the fame of the artist.

  20. What strikes me about the photograph is that it looks like a painting – even something elementary, like an art class exercise depicting texture in grass, water and sky. Maybe it blurs the lines of reality/photography and fantasy/other fine arts. When I look at it, I forget that it’s a real place where I can go and stand and experience. It’s like looking into the mind of a painter and seeing the moment that could “never” be captured with a photograph.

  21. A bit off beat but: can anyone recommend a few photographers with works influenced by the film directors such as Tarkovsky, Ozu, Cassavetes and Renoir… Or photographs that challenge you way of seeing and force you to fill in the blanks (but not being “smart” conceptual gimmicky type). Josh?

  22. The article explained it well, why this photo is so expensive.  Specially It is taken by the  same photographer who took “99 cent”. Hope those critics read it. At first I also don’t understand. But just by looking at it continuously I also felt something about the photo.

  23. hi guys i’m jun from the philippines, a former photo and videographer in a studio. now i’m teaching as an CAD and drawing instructor. thanks for this most expensive i’d like to share my comments. At first its really boring to look at i take a deep breath and just like a magic then i felt relaxed and amazed. thanks and Keep up the  Good work

  24. I think this is a great photo and worth the high pricetag. It has a surreal effect which conveys eternity and simplicity. To be honest,  I think Andreas has used Photoshop quite deliberately on this photo. If you look at the center horizon – it is a straight line. But, that looks wrong because we are conditioned to accept that you never see a straight line in Nature. Andreas has made his horizon a straight line – that is why it is thought provoking. A bit like those 3d abstract drawings for Mensa students that are optical illusions. 
    The path and the river are acceptable as straight lines because they are man made – not the horizon.
    This photo nearly fooled me. Nice trick Andreas.
    Paul Sherwood

  25. Truth be told….expensive art is used as a storage of wealth. And that storage bin is usually the work of an intelligent artist, not so much  the quality of the art produced by that artist , as the justification for creating such a storage bin.
    Picaso was the same thing. Smart, talented, and rejected the convention. His art is particularly moving, but it offers a great storage bin for wealth. 
    It is kind of like charging $2 bucks for a cow tongue at a fancy restaurant at two bucks nobody wants it, $29 the restaurant sells out of tongue every night,

  26. Wow a bunch of straight lines. Kind of reminds of of white on white so simple yet so simple. There is nothing but a scam going here in the value of this image. But all rich people have to have something to do with their money and time so this is as good as any other random simplification to store that cashola in…

  27. When I first saw this image I thought I had been scammed. This feeling has not really changed much since then. It reminds me of a good deal of the modern art we are shown these days that really is laughably lacking any real artistic value, imho. To me, when you are talking about art or photography that is selling for obscene amounts of money – millions of dollars, it becomes more about how much can the piece fetch in the marketplace years from now – and not so much about how the piece moves the buyer’s artistic sensibilities. These so called “art collectors” play a good game – they know how to finesse the market to their advantage by creating an “aura” of excitement around certain artists/photographers who are also very clever and know how to create “what sells” in the current high-end market. The public is gullible and easily manipulated. This has always been the case. A simple example would be Vincent Van Gogh. He only sold one painting in his entire lifetime. Now his work is world renowned and sells for millions of dollars. Imo, for the most part – the world is upside down. And I don’t see that sad fact changing anytime soon.

  28. In any form of art there, are many other talented people which will die unknown or will die poor before other will make them famous and manipulate their work.
    Think about Van Gaugh, Gauguin or Modigliani in painting or Mozart and Bethoveen in music. This artist photographer is a lucky one, good for him. I would like to see any history of comments appreciation of this picture before someone was willing to pay in an action such amount of money.
    In this situation all I can say is the quote:
    “De gustibus non est disputandum”.

  29. it is a boring picture and truly if I did like it, i would go to a river and shoot a similar scene, there is no art or skill in it.
    Obviously one cannot just recreate Rembrandt’s ‘nightwatch’ but this one is no more than a boring snapshot.
    All the ‘it is so great’ is nothing more than ‘the emperor’s clothes’. It is pure proof that some people have more money than brains.
    Had a look at Gursky’s other pics, equally boring, equally bad.
    Same goes for teh 2nd most expensive picture from Cindy Sherman. Just a dime a dozen snapshot with the white balance off
    Paying these prices for a modern pic is lunacy anyway coz in a whim one can have a million copies of it

    1. You could say that about most modern art though. That’s the amazing thing about it. What you’re paying for here is the marketing of art, rather than the art itself. That’s where the true value is created.

    1. Never delete work. the bad pictures show how you’ve made mistakes and grown as a photographer, also I find that sometimes bad pictures can grow on you given time. I also find that the pictures I hate are often thought of as good by other people. you cant account for taste!

  30. The river shows movement. That’s the first thing I notice. The color of the river and the movement makes me think of a highway. Since this was a photo that removed all buildings, etc from the shot this seems to be a bit of irony. I like that.

  31. I’m curious to know without the prestige factor and awareness of the value of previous work how you would have viewed this image? I agree that photography and art is subjective and it is all about the ‘glasses’ that we each wear that we effect how we appreciate it or not. But this can be jaded by hype and narcissism. I must admit that when I saw this photo and the price that I spent a good while looking at it and it improved the more I looked at it. But had you presented me with any photo which I found immediately unappealing I probably would have done the same and began to found things that I like about it and been able to find some great symbolic value (you could find symbolic value in photos taken by a 5 year old which deserve to be thrown in the scrap heap, but if I promoted in the right circles may sell for a lot of money). I found myself feeling immersed in the scenery both by its earthiness and bleak nature, and wondered whether it had been edited given the very straight lines which are very hard to achieve. But whether I would spend that amount of money on it and even buy it at all, or just look at it and say ‘mmm interesting’ and continuing walking around a gallery to look at other photos is another story. Or if I were rich, bored and vein I might be seduced by the idea of putting this up in my living area and imagining the attention it would bring at dinner parties.

    1. One of my favourite pictures in my collection was taken by my son and shot on film by a then 7 year old, I wish to this day that I had taken it! Maybe one day he will get the recognition he deserves with or without prestige lol

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