Sunday, November 13, 2011

The $4+Million Photograph

A photograph by Andreas Gursky fetched more than $4.3 million in auction earlier this week. And that's not the only thing that's surprising. The artist is still alive and well.

See an image of the photograph and a BBC news article about it here.

Read a Wikipedia article about Andreas Gursky here.

The value the world of art collectors and museums has placed on this photograph by a living artist is the latest development in the acceptance of photography as a fully acknowledged art form.

The sale of this particular picture raises some questions about the art of photography in general that I have touched upon in some of my previous blog postings. In particular, what is the photographer's creative contribution to a "found" subject such as a landscape or architecture?  After all, the photographer had no role whatsoever in the creation or placement of the objects in the scene. Isn't the camera merely an impartial and literal device for recording a moment in time and space?

Wouldn't it be correct to say that a photograph is no different from other artistic creations that use found objects in novel arrangements and constructions? What the artist does with the found object is to creatively isolate it, modify it, and call our attention to something about it that we never saw before. And isn't this precisely what Gursky did with his record setting print, Rhein II? It took the eye and mind of an artist named Gursky to see the possible in the ordinary that hundreds, if not thousands, of people glance at each day as they pass by it. He reduced a roadside scene along a river to an arrangement of paralled lines in two colors. Perhaps he augmented the original saturation.  Perhaps he removed an extraneous branch or fence post. Perhaps he did something even more extreme in Photoshop. Does it matter?  What sold was the print (limited to six copies, I believe), not the process.

The camera is not impartial.  It records only what the photographer allows to enter through the lens. The photographer makes the decision what to include and what to exclude when framing the image in the viewfinder, LCD or ground glass. And that is just the first step. 

To dismiss a photograph that achieves the notariety of Rhein II by saying, "What's so special about it? I could have taken that picture myself," is like saying "What's so special about Shakespeare's Hamlet?  All the words are in the dictionary."  True. But who's the person who arranged the words in that special way?

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