Peter Lik Phantom
Peter Lik Phantom: PRNewswire

Surely by now you’ve heard that the most expensive photo in history has recently been sold by photographer Peter Lik to an undisclosed collector for a record-breaking price of 6.5 Million Dollars. Peter Lik is better known for his television personality and his decadent galleries in posh retail locations in cities like Aspen, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas than for his dominance in the realm of fine art. But whether you like it or not, his work has just created the new pinnacle in art photography sales, and it undoubtedly raises some interesting questions.

Peter Lik is certainly a personality, and has doubtless created an amazing brand, but is he an artist? Can photography even be considered art?

My favorite stance – actually two stances, but we’ll get to that – comes via the Guardian UK art section, and is penned by one Jonathan Jones. He begins:

Photography is not an art. It is a technology.

Mr. Jones goes into the shortcomings of photography as an artistic medium, and then unleashes an all out assault on the quality of this particular image. He closes as follows:

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. For this hollow and overblown creation exposes the illusion that lures us all, when we’re having a good day with a good camera – the fantasy that taking a picture is the same thing as making a work of art.

Well, there we have it. Clearly photography is not art, most especially when the image under the microscope is this particular one by Mr. Lik. But, to be fair, we should really find a counter argument. Surely there’s another perspective to be had.

Yes, here it is. I’ve found the perfect argument for photography as art, in the very same Guardian UK, penned by the very same Jonathan Jones! In his article from 2013, not so very long ago, titled ‘Photography Is the Art of Our Time’, Mr. Jones espouses the recognition of photography as an art form as follows:

It has taken me a long time to see this, and you can laugh at me if you like. But here goes.
Photography is the serious art of our time. It also happens to be the most accessible and democratic way of making art that has ever been invented.

Moving or still, and however it is taken, whether by pinhole camera or phone, the photographic image is the successor to the great art of the past…Why? Because photography relishes human life. The greatness of art lies in human insight. What matters most is not the oil paints Rembrandt used, but his compassion. Photography is the quickest, most exact tool ever invented to record our lives and deaths – 17th-century painters would have loved it.

Whammy! Take that Jonathan Jones, you just got served by…um, Jonathan Jones. So, while Jon argues with himself in the pages of the newspaper, I’ll weigh in with my perspective.

I have, out of professional curiosity, wandered through a few of Peter Lik’s galleries. His work is striking, beautifully presented and lit, and is supported by a masterful sales team and a cubic ton of marketing mojo. It’s also heavily retouched and composited, and suffers from a distinct excess of digital special sauce. In short, upon close inspection, it doesn’t float my boat. But that really couldn’t be more beside the point. Here’s the point.

Peter Lik believes he is an artist and has successfully built a business on that foundation. The Smithsonian has cared enough for his images to give them generous wall space. Buyers of photography around the world have decided he is an artist and have opted to purchase and display his pieces when selecting work for the winter house in Aspen or the summer getaway in Key West. And this latest buyer? He has stated, with his checkbook, that Peter Lik is among the greatest photographic artists in history.

As far as I’m concerned, it only takes two people to decide that something deserves the title of ‘art’ – an artist who believes in the artistic value of his creation, and one single viewer who feels the same way. This work, like all works must be foremost subject to the Eye of the Beholder clause. Or, as Macklemore put it, “One man’s junk is another man’s come-up”. In this case, we have an artist and we have an appreciator, therefore the criteria is met and all I have to say is, congratulations Mr. Lik.

Either that, or the purchase was an inside job and this is all a well orchestrated and very successful publicity stunt…but you didn’t hear that from me.

Art or Not? What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Peter Lik Just Sold a Photo for 6.5 Million Dollars, But Is It Art?

  1. Interesting topic. I think it’s all subjective. If you can snap an image and alter it to create an emotion from a viewer, I can see it labeled as art. We have it easier in our times because we don’t have to start with a blank canvas. Some art might be “easier” than others (photography vs. painting). E.g. isn’t a sprinter still an athlete as is a marathoner? One event takes much less time.

  2. Sold a print at auction for $6.5 Million. Gives away scans of same pic to friends as stocking stuffers…

    I know this does not speak to the subject of photos being art, but still amazes me that something that can be replicated without any loss of quality, and still just as “authentic” as the next one you print, can be sold for that much money.

  3. On the other hand I see Mac-Jac Art that moves around from mall to mall and fair to fair around North America selling tryptich’s of 3-20″x20″ pics mounted on MDF for $150 and they make money at it. Maybe we are trying for too high of a road and we need to consider the $150 route. Volume versus the Lik school of $6.5M for a black & white pic.

  4. I agree. I admire:
    a) his control over the entire production chain
    b) his loyal fans
    but I wish I could own 1/2 as many galleries and sell photos for far more “normal” of a price and make a good living, not gazillions of dollars off buyers in the Las Vegas and Beverly Hills as Lik does.

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