Last month, Peter Lik sold a photograph for US$6.5 million, which (at the time I’m writing this) makes it the highest price ever paid for a photo.
Naturally, upon hearing the news, I did what any self-respecting photographer would do: I began sifting through my old images like a miner panning for gold.
Lik’s photo netted nearly $2.2 million more than the $4.38 million paid for the previous record holder — Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II — in November 2011. Not coincidentally, the date of Gursky’s sale coincides with the last time I went spelunking through my back catalog — an expedition I’d undertaken just 6 months previously when Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96 sold for US$3.89 million.
Every time a photo sells for a record price, it prompts a lot of moaning and groaning on photography forums. These forums — more typically used for heated arguments about which camera brand is best — become temporary, makeshift therapy groups. For several days, the forum’s collection of scholarly University of Wikipedia graduates lay down their vitriolically-barbed arms, join (virtual) hands, and regale one another with stories of how they, themselves, have deleted thousands of photos that were far far better…
Personally, I make no value judgement on the photos that sell. It matters not one bit whether I like the photo or not. It matters not whether I think my photos are better, more honest, more interesting, prettier, grittier, wittier, or anything else. It’s art. Plebeian logic does not apply.
So, while my fellow photographers wallow about in an orgy of self-pity and group condemnation of the record-setting photo, I roll up my sleeves and start analyzing precisely why this image just set a record. Solve the puzzle, solve any and all financial burdens. Why complain, when you can learn?
I decided to look at the last three record-setters, to see what characteristics they might all share.
Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96 is a closely-cropped photo of a fully clothed woman’s face and torso. It’s a self portrait, and is predominantly and almost uniformly orange in color.
Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II is a rather obviously Photoshopped, idealized landscape showing land, water and sky. Unlike Sherman’s photo, there are no people present. Nor does it present itself as a sea of orange, tending toward the opposite colors of green and blue.
Peter Lik’s Phantom is, on first glance, a photo you’ve seen several thousand times. That’s because its a photograph of the ever-popular (and thus widely over-photographed) Antelope Canyon in Arizona — a must-see destination for any photographer hoping to shoot a photograph worthy of hanging over the living room sofa. Unlike the Sherman or Gursky photos, Lik’s is black and white. And though it may seem as totally void of people as Gursky’s, it does contain a sort of ghostly, human-like figure that appears to have formed out of the dust — a suggestion of a human without actually being a human. A “phantom.”
So what’s the common denominator here? That’s a tough one — but if the answer was easy, we’d all be multi-millionaires.
I decided to zoom out a little bit, and instead of looking at each photo individually, I started to look at them as some part of a larger pattern. Figure out the pattern, and you figure out what the next record setting photo will look like.
Suppose someone presents you with the following numerical sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13. What comes next? Once you figure out the pattern (in this case, a basic Fibonacci sequence), then you can easily predict that the next number is 21.
So what patterns do I see in this sequence of high-dollar photos?
Well, the Sherman is colourful, wider than it is tall, and it’s most obviously a “straight” photo of a human. The Gursky is also colourful and wider than it is tall, but it is completely void of human presence and is more “abstract” than straight. The Lik, like the Gursky, is landscape oriented and is a nature shot — though it does contain a ghostly suggestion of humanity. But, unlike the previous two photos, it’s in black and white, though it returns to the non-abstract, “straight” photography aesthetic of the Sherman.
Careful analysis of this sequence implies that the Simpson (which I hope to make the next record setter) needs to have the following attributes: It must have a ghostly suggestion of humanity, it must be black and white, it must be portrait-oriented and it must be more “abstract” than “straight.”
In other words, it needs to keep two characteristics from the previous photo (black and white, ghostly human presence), completely alter a third (orientation), and return to one of the characteristics that was present two photos earlier, but not previously (abstract).
Scouring my Lightroom catalog has produced this:
So there you have it: the next record setting photo.
Most of you will probably head straight to your favourite photography forum to begin trashing it mercilessly — but that would be a huge mistake.
Why? Because I’ve decided to give my loyal ULTRAsomething readers a piece of the action. If you believe, like I do, that this image is going to be the photo that unseats Lik’s Phantom from its position as “most expensive photo ever,” you’re about to get wildly rich. Instead of hogging the expected take of US$7 million all to myself, I’m going to allow some lucky middle-man to profit right along with me. That’s right — I’m going to offer to sell this photograph wholesale to one lucky reader, who is then free to turn around and sell it for full price at auction.
And what am I asking for this exciting and lucrative opportunity?
Bidding starts at a measly US$1 million. If only one of you is clever enough to bid for the right to own this photo, you will have the potential to turn a $1 million investment into a $7 million reward.
It might just be the deal of the century. And to think I actually resisted the art world for all these years!
©2014 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS:
Normally, this is the point where I happily pull back the curtain and let readers peep at the technical details surrounding any photos contained within the article — things like camera body, lens, film stock, ISO speed and development technique. However, for a fine art photograph such as this, sharing such pedestrian knowledge would be considered quite gauche and would likely impact your ability to attain maximum dollar at auction.
So, instead, I’ll state simply that I used a device designed specifically for photographic purposes, and that the photo was shot in the summer of 2014. No other details need be known.
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