The most expensive photograph ever sold ???

Phantom, by PeterLik

High profile photographer Peter Lik claims to have sold a monochrome image of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon titled Phantom for A$7.85 million.  This follows several other reported multi-million-dollar sales by Lik.  You can read about it in the Sydney Morning Herald HERE

Wow.  Is it true?  Is it worth that much?  Commentators have raised doubts on both counts (e.g. see THIS).

One arts consultant says that Lik’s photographs have no resale value, which would make a purchase on that scale quite extraordinary.  Lik, an accomplished spruiker, claims to be “the world’s most influential fine arts photographer” and “one of the most important artists of the 21st century”.  Yet he has allegedly been ‘spurned’ by the arts establishment and ‘dismissed’ by critics.

One of the most interesting aspects of this whole affair is that it has prompted a debate about whether landscape photography counts as art.  The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones launched an extraordinary broadside against both Phantom and photography in general which can be read HERE

Jones’ comments included these beauties:

Photography is not an art. It is a technology…My iPad can take panoramic views that are gorgeous to look at. Does that make me an artist? No, it just makes my tablet one hell of a device.

This record-setting picture typifies everything that goes wrong when photographers think they are artists. It is derivative, sentimental in its studied romanticism, and consequently in very poor taste. It looks like a posh poster you might find framed in a pretentious hotel room.

The fact that it is in black and white should give us pause. Today, this deliberate use of an outmoded style can only be nostalgic and affected, an “arty” special effect.

…beauty is cheap if you point a camera at a grand phenomenon of nature…this downward stream of light is simply a natural aspect of Antelope Canyon…The photographer has added nothing of any value to what was there already.

It is a cliche: easy on the eye, easy on the brain, hackneyed and third-hand. If this is the most valuable “fine art photograph” in history, God help fine art photography.


Guardian colleague and photography critic Sean O’Hagan went in to bat for the other side against Jones, saying “photography is art and always will be”. But in the process he still managed to disparage nature photography as art, dismissing the Wildlife Photographer of the Year show for instance (O’Hagan’s report is HERE).

As part of the discussion, Australian gallery owner Megan Dick said art was driven by ideas, not documentation.  “Being such a literal interpretation of the subject, landscape photography is more in the realm of documentary rather than art.”

The Herald report also says that “pointing a camera at nature” is “pretty well all Lik does”.

Hmmmm…where do I stand?  I don’t want to go into the merits of Phantom or Lik’s work in general.  And I’m no art expert, but I do believe that the best nature photography is most definitely art.  However a detailed exposition of that view would take a lot of time and research.  Rather, I will make some related observations:

  • There are as many views about art (and photography) as there are critics and artists (and photographers).  The whole ‘art world’ is a confused, conflicted and very bitchy place.
  • My own perhaps old-fashioned view is that art should include purpose, or intention, as well as craft and skill in execution.  But the end product doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘beautiful’.
  • The line between ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ is infinitely blurred.  Obviously not all photography is art…and I don’t think all ‘art’ is art either!
  • Painting and writing are technologies too, but it would be stupid to suggest that because some people paint houses then painting cannot be art, or that journalism annuls the art of literature.
  • If art is only driven by ideas, then where does that leave Monet, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Rodin and Constable?  Or in the Australian context, Grace Cossington Smith, Brett Whiteley and Tom Roberts?  Amongst more contemporary artists, what about Jackson Pollock or John Coburn?
  • Besides, the implication that landscape and nature photography do not emerge from a world view or philosophy, or a drive to convey ideas, is simply wrong (here I’m referring to serious, quality, ‘intentional’ photography).  The best nature photography is deeply spiritual.
  • It seems to me that Jonathan Jones knows little about photography and the vast diversity of practice and purpose out there.  His ignorance of why photographers might still choose to work in ‘outmoded’ monochrome is emblematic (it could equally be argued that by now all painters should have shifted to digital techniques).  Similarly, Sean O’Hagan does not understand nature photography.  Perhaps this ignorance is down to us nature/landscape photographers who have not effectively communicated what we do and why.  Or maybe its another example of how tragically divorced we are becoming from the real world.
  • Photography is different to other art forms, and sometimes the ‘reality’ of realistic images can blind us to more subtle meanings.  As with all art, some knowledge of the genre, its history and philosophy, as well as the artist and their intentions, can aid appreciation, how we perceive and understand the work.
  • “Pointing a camera at nature” and “beauty is cheap” (easy) are ludicrous oversimplifications, as anyone who has tried to make an interesting or compelling photograph knows.  Finding the subject, selection of viewpoint, composition, lighting and mood are all inherently aesthetic/creative/artistic processes.
  • There seems to be an assumption that Lik’s image and similar can’t be art if they are literal.  Putting aside the validity of that idea, I suspect Phantom is actually highly manipulated.  It looks like HDR (high dynamic range) processing has been used, and also that the dust ‘phantom’ may have been inserted or modified digitally.  So would heavily manipulated, ‘non-literal’ photographs be more worthy of consideration as ‘art’ in Jones’ view?
  • Nature photography, of the sort I value from others and try to achieve myself, is not about the single ‘wow’ image of the kind that often wins competitions…even if we might all be attracted to such photographs and try to make them from time to time.  It is more about a total body of work, a personal style, a mood and a feeling, an accumulated view of nature that is conveyed without verbal explanation.  Personally, in the work of other nature photographers I value subtlety, history, originality, harmony, vision and intimacy with the subject…a sense of communion perhaps…over immediate impact which often wears thin in a short time.  If you look at the work of the photographers on my Links page, you might struggle to find a single ‘award-winning’ image from many of them.  But oh how they sing.


Copyright Ian Brown Photography