The cutting-edge French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, known as the father of modern photojournalism and a pioneer in street-photography, immortalized a photograph of a man leaping over the puddle behind the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris. The iconic photograph, snapped in 1930, exemplified what Henri called “The Decisive Moment”. The term defines the essence of photography and describes the precise timing of capturing a fleeting moment and preserving it forever.
Over the years, different photographers have eternalized “The Decisive Moment” and earned critical acclaim for their works. Striking aesthetics, impactful compositions and strong social commentary are some of the characteristics that make these images the highest-priced photographs ever sold.
Just as striking paintings can fetch millions of dollars, attention-grabbing photographs can also command top prices.
With the advent of the 20th century, art and aesthetics brought in a new dimension to the world of photography. Now, photographers were more than documentarians; they were artists who created legitimate works of art. In addition to chronicling people, streets, and landscapes, “art for art’s sake” emerged as the new style of photography.
Edward Steichen, The Pond - Moonrise, 1904, Platinum print with applied color - Source: Metropolian Museum of Art via metmuseum.org © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
In the year 1904, Edward Steichen’s The Pond—Moonlight, also known as The Pond—Moonrise, was the first photograph sold for the highest price until then. The image depicts a forest in Mamaroneck, New York, photographed in the backdrop of a pond. The most eye-catching part is the moon seen through the trees over the horizon. However, what’s also intriguing about this image is how its applied hues mimicked color photography (which wasn’t invented yet). A total of three prints of the photo were made: one of them recently sold for $2.9 million (£2.3 million) at auction in February of 2006.
Richard Avedon Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris August 1955, Gelatin silver print. Source: MoMA via moma.org © 2021 The Richard Avedon Foundation
Richard Avedon’s Dovima with Elephants taken in the mid-1950s celebrated the artistic sensibilities in the world of fashion photography. Sold for a record-breaking amount of approximately $1.2 million in 2010 at Christie's, the photograph portrays the American supermodel Dovima dressed in a Dior outfit posing with two elephants.
Australian landscape photographer Peter Lik snapped his first photograph at the tender age of eight. Renowned for his panoramic images of nature, the landscaper also hosted the reality travel show From the Edge with Peter Lik.
Peter Lik Phantom. Photo: Peter Lik.
In December 2014, Lik made headlines when his work Phantom allegedly sold for a record-breaking $6.5 million to a private, undiscloused client - the highest price paid for a single photograph at the time. Taken in Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, the image presents a mysterious, glistening shaft of light shooting through the canyon. The black and white photograph creates a phantom-like eeriness with the sand and walls of the cave enchanting the onlooker.
However, Lik's claim to have sold the work privately has been hit with recent backlash - many in the artworld believing that the photographer, who deals his own work, to be inflating purchase price records in an attempt to make him the most financially successful fine art photographer of all time. According to both a New York Times and Artnet article, Lik's work hasn't had much luck in the auction world despite his sky high private sales, "At auction, Lik has never sold for more than $15,860—a price that was achieved for Ghost, a color version of Phantom, at a 2008 sale. That is his only sale thus far that has brought in more than $3,000. So where are all these big sales numbers coming from?" Artnet writes.
Before Lik’s Phantom set a record, Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II held the top position for the highest priced photo sold at $4.3 million in 2011. The color photograph is a horizontal image of the river (the Lower Rhine) flowing with green fields in between an overcast sky above. The German visual artist erased details such as a factory building and dog walkers with the help of digital editing. A professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany, Gursky is best known for his large-format landscapes and architectural photographs.
Andreas Gursky, The Rhine II, 1999, Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper. Source: Tate via tate.org.uk, © Courtesy Monika Sprueth Galerie, Koeln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2021
Another Andreas Gursky photograph featured in the list of most expensive images is his 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001). The diptych artwork consists of images hinged as a single photo. Gursky took the photo at a 99 Cents Only store in America. Measuring 6.8ft x 11.1ft, the images portray common shopping aisles with digitally modified colors to saturate shades of orange and red.
Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986). Source: The Broad.
Another photograph that smashed records was Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986). Jeff Wall created this fictional montage of the aftermath of an attack on the Soviet Army by Mujahideen near Mogor during the Soviet-Afghan War. The image portrays Soviet soldiers rising from the dead with missing limbs and wounds on their bodies. This hallucinatory vision sold for $3,666,500 at Christie's, New York in 2012.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96, 1981, Chromogenic print. Source: MoMA via moma.org © 2021 Cindy Sherman, courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
In 1981, Cindy Sherman took a photograph of herself as part of her series Untitled Film Stills. The series depicts her in various poses, mostly gazing away from the camera. It was a one-woman show as Sherman photographed herself, did her own makeup, hairstyle, modeling, lighting, and direction. The self-portrait Untitled Film Still #96 was sold at a Christie's sale for $3,890,500 to a dealer in New York in 2011. It was resold for $2.89 million in 2012, becoming the 12th highest-priced image.
Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) Noire et blanche, 1926, Gelatin silver print. Source: MoMA via moma.org © 2021 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
African art was a major driving force in the art world in the earlier part of the twentieth century and American visual artist, Man Ray, held a particular interest in the influence it was having on art movements of the age.
In 1926, Ray photographed an image, which is one of the best known surrealistic photos of its time. The famous French model Kiki de Montparnasse, who was also Ray’s lover and muse, posed with an expressionless face in this image. Her head lies on a table with her eyes closed as she holds an African mask vertically in her left hand. The title, translating to, black and white, stands in for both the monochrome medium and the juxtaposition between the white face of Kiki and the black color of the African tribal mask. The work was published in Vogue magazine and its original print achieved $3,131,533 in 2017 at Christie's (Paris).
Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1989, Chromogenic print © Richard Prince
Richard Prince is a master of re-photography. In the 1970s, when Prince was working at Time-Life Inc., he would often clip news stories out of magazines and save them. Flipping through the pages, Prince seized the opportunity to re-photograph some original images by later cropping, blurring and enlarging them. The artist’s Cowboy series is one of his most popular works formatted in this style and in 2005, his Untitled (Cowboy) image, appropriated from the original photo of an advertisement of Marlboro cigarettes, sold for more than $1 million at the Christie's New York auction.
Looking through the lens of history, one comes across several impactful images that made it to the list of most expensive photographs ever. These are indeed captivating compositions reflecting significant “decisive moments” of their times.
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