Is Any Photograph Actually Worth $6,500,000?

Is Any Photograph Actually Worth $6,500,000?

Peter Lik must be one very happy camper. Earlier we broke the news of the sale of the “Phantom”, a black and white image of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, sold for a record breaking $6.5m, making it the most expensive photograph ever sold. A massive internal discussion amongst Fstoppers writers took place shortly thereafter, arguing whether any photograph was actually worth that much money. 

Peter Lik is undoubtedly talented, and driven to create compelling visual images and interesting and unique prints, and goes to incredible lengths to get the shots he does. I randomly wandered into one of his show rooms some years back and – while what he produces is not “my thing”, I definitely get why people go for it.

But is any photograph worth that much money? I have no idea what it feels like to make $10m in a weekend but I’d love to speak to Peter and find out what he thinks because these amounts are unprecedented. There is obviously a fair amount of jubilation over at LIK USA as this is the banner that greets you when you visit Peter's site today:


What Is Any Photograph Actually Worth?

Without denigrating the work of any photographer, which is certainly not the aim here, it inevitably makes me wonder “just how much is any photograph actually worth?”

For those who may not be familiar, you might like to check out this list that Gizmodo put together last year of the 10 most expensive photographs ever sold. Many frequently feel incredulous when looking at what Gursky’s photographs sell for, but I’ve never seen one in person. Our own Mike Kelley (no stranger to finding himself at the epicenter of a significant demand for his own fine art work) has said on the Gursky work, “it's about so much more than what the photo itself just "looks" like”.

This is absolutely the crux of the question about the value of our photography, surely.

If I consider something art, and you or the next person doesn’t, who is to say I am wrong? If I am willing to pay $1million for a photograph that you wouldn’t pay a penny for, then the value for that piece of work is now at $1million.

We end up fundamentally asking, “what is it that determines the value of our work?”. This will actually be the topic of an upcoming article form our very own Chris Knight, who will be going into more detail on what is art, and what is it worth, so I won't get too deep into that here, but wouldn't it fascinating to try and conduct a scientific experiment of sorts to attempt to bring some insight into the truest value of what we shoot?

How Can We Establish Our True Photographic Worth?

We at Fstoppers always want to try to dig a little deeper and within both the photographic community and the wider artistic and creative communities at large, so I’ve decided to conduct a small social experiment with the help of fellow writer and travel photographer extraordinaire, Michael Bonocore with the aim of answering this intriguing question.

Michael has very kindly donated a piece of one of his latest fine art works to see if we can establish a tangible value to what some may consider to be a work of art.

You may view the work and what he is offering here:

Let’s put this to the test. Can we break Lik’s record? Unlikely. Can we establish the true market value for his photograph? Absolutely. Will some of us call it art while others call it complete garbage? Almost certainly. But I'm positive that's the same exact discussion going on with work that sells for millions of dollars. 

Feel free to bid on Michael’s one of a kind piece of otherworldly tranquility and let’s see where things go – and please be assured that, in keeping with the holiday spirit and in an effort to maintain a semblance of journalistic integrity, any and all profits from the sale will absolutely go to a charity of Michael’s choosing.

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Warren A Jordan's picture

Anything is worth what an individual is willing to pay and / or what the market will tolerate....Pretty simple.

David Vaughn's picture

But which individual are we talking about? Any individual who gives a price, or only the highest bidder? If it's the highest bidder, what makes their proposed price any more valid than the other bids in determining the value of the work?

Nick Simonis's picture

"If it's the highest bidder, what makes their proposed price any more valid than the other bids in determining the value of the work?"

Comments like these are starting to bug me.. Don't you realise that it was a bidding? Do you really think the guy showed up and said; "I'll pay 6,5 million for that piece! Oh, and 2,5 million for that one and a million for the other!". The buyer obviously liked his work and decided he would pay as much as it takes to own the art he wanted to own. So what did he do? He went on a bidding war, not with himself, but with potentially other collectors. And the most valuable photograph of all, is obviously the one with which the other collector is going to war with and ends up at a record 6,5 million. THAT is was determines the worth of a photograph, the determination of a buyer vs other buyers at that moment, nothing more, nothing less.

So to answer your question, of course it's the highest bidder that decides the final price, but the climb to that price isn't a sudden one like you're suggesting. Other people with the same sized wallet and same art interests are involved in a bidding war that went that high. To suggest that the buyer just decided a price out of thin is air is just stupid.

Do you really think paintings were magically worth tens of millions of dollars overnight because someone though he'd just pay a certain amount? Then why would you think that of photography?

It's purely based on human sentiment, thickness of wallets and willingness to pay whatever for a piece of art, this buyer clearly had a little bit more of each than his competitors.

Dan Cavallari's picture

I often hear fellow photographers bemoaning the legitimacy in the public's eye of photography as an art form. Our work has been devalued time and time again, so while it seems ridiculous that someone would pay $6.5 million for a photo that countless tourists take every day, it also lends a dollar value to our struggling art form.

In other words, it's not quality that produces a high dollar amount. It's buzz, and Peter Lik has it. Smart photogs will now capitalize on this trend, if they are able, while others will basically struggle with the same thing all other artists struggle with: why do some artists get paid millions while others squander for pennies?

The answer: marketing. Peter Lik has a gallery in Vegas. I've been there. It's nice. It's flashy. And it's situated right where people who have money will see it. He has made his name synonymous with prestige now. That's all marketing, not photographic talent.

Adam Bender's picture

Were his photographs not that impressive? I've never been to one of his galleries. He must have photographic talent to back up the numerous galleries and success he as had. I can't imagine he would be that successful on marketing alone.

Michael Bonocore's picture

Dan nails it. It is smart marketing, and Peter Lik and his team are phenomenal at it. His photos are MUCH more impressive when seen in his galleries, in my opinion. He is a master at setting his own value high, and making sure other people know what he has valued his work at. That's what gets him these big sales.

Dan Cavallari's picture

His photos are impressive, don't get me wrong. But it's mostly about presentation. I saw a short film about him and his process, and it's really interesting. But he's not doing anything others aren't also doing, as far as I can tell...except for his marketing.

David Geffin's picture

I also saw a short film and it gave a lot of time to how he would return over and over, through the harsh winters and sweltering summers to places for years and years, just to get the exact right moment he was searching for. I am positive he busts his arse to get these shots - but again, the video masterfully demonstrated time and again how difficult it was - giving more credence to the value of the piece, because of the clear mention of the blood, sweat, tears and grit that went into achieving it.

David Geffin's picture

Agree - he has a gallery in Key West too, and i wandered into it intrigued by what was in the window. Right there, where wealthy vacationers stroll by, perfect foot fall for high end sales territory.

While i'm not into his work, i see why people are and his displays, print and lighting in the gallery are beautifully orchestrated to ad a vibrancy to his work. He has talent, but as you rightly point out, he is also a marketing genius.

Adam Bender's picture

Art is worth whatever the top bidder is willing to pay for it. I'm sure paying the most coin in history for a photograph plays into the price as well. The buyer bought a piece of history too. With that kind of cash who wants to buy the 2nd most expensive photo?

Charles Gaudreault's picture

is there a story behind these top 10 photos to make someone pay this price for it?

Adam Bender's picture

Do we know who bought it? Maybe he bought it himself and is about to benefit from the frenzy all the buzz is bringing him. Of course that's a conspiracy theory... but...

Michael Bonocore's picture

Adam, I don't think the buyer information has been made public, and most likely won't be.

Michael Rapp's picture

Given compensation in terms of resources and time? Of course not!
But then again, what is the intrinsic value of a guy being able to throw a ball through a hoop which is elevated 10 feet? Or hitting a ball with a wooden stick better than most others?
The question of intrinsic worth in art is as moot as it is in professional sports, or recording art for that matter.
The single question that actually means anything in this context is that of supply and demand.
For those interested, check the tulip craze in the Netherlands in the late 16th century and its sudden cessation. Only where there art buyers (pun intended), there is a market.

Joshua Carlisle's picture

I don't bother to get into the "what is art" debate - to each their own but at least in the confines of the photography community I think many would agree that his work is rather meh. That's not to say that it is not good work but if you would place it next to hundreds of other photos on the popular stream on 500px it would probably blend right in. What he excels at is marketing himself and that's honestly where I think a lot of photographers fail. For good or for bad he's convinced a lot of people that his artwork has value so they buy it for large amounts of money. I'd like to see another social experiment and set some no name photographer (I'd be happy to volunteer haha) and open a very high end gallery in the middle of Vegas with high end branding along with some high end prices and some back story about my inspiration. Get some corporate sponsorship and maybe get a short term gig on say... the weather channel and then see where things go. I have a few suspicions on the outcome although I know I'm over simplifying the required recipe for commercial super star success these days. I think as an artist until you die it's all about marketing.

Now on a side note I have to say my wife walked in just as I was looking at the ebay page to Michael Bonocore's masterpiece. I started to explain and then just decided that it wasn't worth it and I closed the tab. Everyone has a right to their own taste in artwork I guess :)

Jason Ranalli's picture

I'm of the opinion that any photographer that is making a living off of selling their work shouldn't even question this. There are wedding photographers that pull in $5K for a wedding and those who have pictures created from equal talent that are able to command a lot more.

To sell your art, photography, work, etc is all about creating a perceived value and at times going after clients who simply have more money to blow. That work was worth $6.5mm to someone who could afford it....just not you or me.

Fritz Asuro's picture

Any photograph or artwork can be worth millions or not even a single cent. It's just how it was presented to collectors / art buyers. Just imagine a beautiful painting sold in the streets versus a white canvas with a red dot sold in a famous art gallery.

OFF TOPIC: The image above is "disturbing". lol

Michael Bonocore's picture

What you find disturbing, some find artistically amazing. :)

Fritz Asuro's picture

Well, I saw the image with the headline "Is Any Photograph Actually Worth $6,500,000?".

Mr Blah's picture

It really is weird... that purple...blob is phalic enough.

M K's picture

I am normally not one to whine about these kind of things but the lead photo is graphic enough that it needs a NSFW tag or somehow not show up on my RSS reader to accompany the title.

Mr Blah's picture

Really? If your boss sees this has inappropriate I feel for you. this doesn't warrant a NSFW tag at all...

Logan Sorenson's picture

Maybe Ben means, because it looks like a big penis.

Scott Basile's picture

I call bullshit. No proof of the sale to this "private collector". Most likely a marketing ploy by a master at marketing.

Justin Haugen's picture

holy purple headed yogurt slinger!

Jonathan Ferland-Valois's picture

That's an interesting question... On the list of the most expensive photos ever sold, I see some pictures that I understand the value of. Per example, the pictures of Billy the Kid or The Pond have a historical value, they're relics. The other pictures are undoubtedly interesting, but I definitely don't think they're special enough to be worth millions of dollars. Many (if not most) of them can even be replicated easily using modern technology. It doesn't mean they're not good pictures. But without the historical value, I hardly see how they can sell for that much.

Logan Sorenson's picture

That pictured photo (thumbnail) anyone else see a big penis? Anyone?

Jeff Cheng's picture

Me, & I tot I was out of depth

Adam Bender's picture

You just scarred me for life.

Tony Carter's picture

Haha! And that first sentence makes it all the more WORSE: "Peter Lik must be one very happy camper." lol

Anthony and Jessica Perez's picture

I'm sure the government has paid much more for certain photos to never see the light of day. #ufos #illuminati . Lol please don't take me seriously.

Andrew Strother's picture

I don't know about art, but the header photo for this article looks like a penis.

Tobias Solem's picture

To someone who pays that amount it is, what it's worth to you or 99.9% of the rest of the world is completely irrelevant.

steven tippett's picture

he sales "phantom" for $6.5mil and i have a hard time selling this for $100... :( i want his marketing agent

Chet Meyerson's picture

Fantastic image Steven Tippett!

I bid 6.6 million.

steven tippett's picture

lol thanks chet :)

scott corless's picture

The emperor has new clothes

Christopher D. Thompson's picture

Photos going for more $ at auction or retail (is this a retail sale? if so, DAMN) is always good for other photographers.

Theo John's picture

Has anyone seen the movie "The Intouchables"? If you haven't: watch it, it is one of the best movies out there! If you have then you will know that it only depends on who says what is art and what isn't art! And by using the term art I mean something very expensive! ;-)

David Geffin's picture

Agree - very good movie and good points

Toby Hawkins's picture

That Gizmodo link is annoying. They show '99 Cent' at number 6, when the text reads '99 Cent II, Diptychon'. Not only is the photo they show wrong, but it clearly isn't a diptych. I'm not sure I trust the rest of their information based on that.

Jamel Flowers's picture

If someone really like something then they will pay just about anything for it