The world's most expensive photograph

A 'phantom' is a figment of the imagination, and some may believe that the world record, $6.5 million, paid for Peter Lik's black and white photograph of Arizona's Antelope Canyon is somewhat delusional. Lik has captured a shaft of light from above, which suggests a ghost-like figure, illuminating the grooves and ridges of the canyon.

Ever since it was announced that this photograph was bought for a world record fee, the old 'is photography art?' argument is brought to the forefront once again. In his article for for the Guardian, art critic, Jonathan Jones (2014), refers to the most expensive photograph ever as 'like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel'. From the title of the article onwards, it is clear that Jones wouldn't have paid $1 for Phantom, let alone $6 million! He continues by criticising the 'outmoded' style of using black and white. I believe it made sense to use monochrome to make the light clear, without the distraction of colour. The texture and contours of the canyon are also much better defined using this processing style. Although Jones (2014) points out that all Lik has done is taken a photograph of a natural phenomenon, that can be found replicated many times on a Google mage search, the photographer has taken the innovative step of making it into a black and white image. 

Furthermore, Jones (2014) accuses Lik of aiming for the sublime in a cliched way, mistaking the picturesque for fine art. Whilst reading his article, I wondered whether Jones (2014) was more concerned with what 'Phantom' isn't rather than what it is.

If Lik's photograph was just another image that lingered amongst the many thousands of images on the Internet, I wonder if Jonathan Jones would attribute so much attention to it? May be it's the price tag that has really riled him. On that point I would find myself agreeing with him. I find it incomprehensible that a photograph can be valued so highly. I would expect the world's earliest known surviving photograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to always command the highest price. In comparison, the Card Players, by Paul Cezanne, is the most expensive painting in the world, bought for $249 million. Therefore photography has someway to go before it can reach that kind of money. 

© Phantom by Peter Lik

Interestingly, in another article Jones (2013) appears to contradict his view about photography as art. Instead he leads with the view that 'photography is the art of our time'. He appears to favour art photography depicting people rather than natural phenomena.

Maybe the debate should be about what makes a photograph. Is it the decision of the photographer to photograph a particular subject, at a particular time, that should be valued the most? Or, is it the subject being photographed that gives 'value' to an image? Surely the sublimity of Phantom is that it depicts a place that most people would never have an opportunity to visit. It represents an unknown world. The beauty is in it's mystery and it's simplicity.

In conclusion, if Jones (2014) is right about the world's most expensive photograph being just like the others out there, then there's hope for all of us aspiring photographers out there too! Whether they are 'art' photographers or 'landscape' photographers.



Jones, Jonathan (2013) [accessed 12/12/14]

Jones, Jonathan (2014) [accessed 12/12/14]