Can Photographers Make Millions? |

When a Photo Sells for $4.3 Million

Home > Articles > Art & Design > Starving artist? Not if your photo sells for $4.3 million

At first glance, it looks almost indistinguishable. Sandwiched between green grass and under a gray cloudy sky, it is hard to know what to make of it. Is it a road of some sort? Or maybe it is some unknown crop growing in a wide silvery swath. But it is neither. It is actually the Rhine River--and this photograph of it is worth $4.3 million.

Most expensive photograph in history

The world's most expensive photograph was taken in 1999 by Andreas Gursky, a German artist who is not your run-of-the-mill photog. His work has been displayed in the Museum of Modern Art and London's Tate Modern. What's more, Gursky is no stranger to mind-boggling prices for his pieces. In 2007, he held the then-record for most expensive photograph in the world when his depiction of a grocery store's stocked shelves sold for $3.3 million at auction.

But Gursky lost the record when Cindy Sherman's 1981 photograph of a girl in orange sold for nearly $4 million earlier this year. However, Gursky is back on top with his image of the Rhine River, entitled Rhein II. Sold for $4.3 million to an undisclosed buyer, the photo may leave some scratching their heads. However, NPR reported Francis Outred of Christie's auction house as saying the photo is like no other.

"One of the most powerful and profound depictions ever to be created of the Rhine," said Outred. "The photo's unique scale draws an ineffable link to the actual natural landscape, inviting the viewer to cross over into its vivid picture plane."

Beyond the subject matter, Gursky is also hailed for his photographic technique and printing process. He combines film and digital processes to create jumbo-sized artistic works. With dimensions of 6 x 11 feet, Rhein II certainly fits his reputation for creating oversized works of art.

Other million dollar photos

Of course, Rhein II isn't the first photo to break the million dollar mark. In fact, there have been at least 10 photos that have publicly sold for a million dollars or more. In addition to Gursky's two works and Sherman's piece, other high selling photos include a nude of Gerogia O'Keefe and a photograph of 1950s model Dovima posing with elephants.

According to BuzzFeed, other high-priced photographs include:

  • Nautilus taken by Edward Weston in 1927: $1.1 million
  • Untitled photo of a cowboy taken by Richard Prince in 1989: $1.2 million
  • Kremlin of Tobolsk taken by Dmitry Medvedev in 2009: $1.75 million
  • The Pond-Moonlight taken by Edward Steichen in 1904: $2.9 million

There are a number of factors that can make a photo worth millions. Some, such as photographs of O'Keefe, likely get a boost from their famous subject matter. Other photos, however, may have historical significance or be produced by famous individuals. In the case of the Kremlin of Tobolsk, the image was captured by Russian President Medvedev and then sold at a charity auction.

Working for a living as a photographer

The fact that a photo of a river can earn $4.3 million is enough to make anyone flip through their snapshots and wonder if they too might have the Midas touch with the camera. Of course, photographers like Gursky are a rare breed, but high-profile artists aren't the only ones who can make a living in this profession.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 150,000 professional photographers in 2008. That number is expected to rise by 12 percent from 2008-2018. More than half of these individuals are self-employed, but others may work as media, portrait or commercial photographers.

Mean annual wages for photographers were $35,980 in 2010 according to BLS data. However, this figure includes both part-time and full-time workers. Full-time salaried photographers tend to earn more than their self-employed counterparts.

Degrees in photography

Although some photographers are self-taught, those wishing to work professionally can benefit from formal training. Many colleges, vocational and technical schools offer coursework in photography. Those interested in working as a photojournalist or in an industrial/scientific setting may need a degree in photography.

Degrees in photography often go beyond simply teaching about camera equipment and development processes. They may also provide instruction in business and marketing skills which can be essential for those who hope to go into business on their own.

While not everyone will sell a $4.3 million photo, a degree in photography can let you make a career out of doing something you love.