Someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words. It seems however that a picture may actually be worth a whole lot more. Perhaps you have heard the most recent buzz concerning the sale of Phantom, an image by photographer Peter Lik, for the heady sum of $6.5 million dollars. As you might imagine this has not only created a stir within the photography ranks, but it has also polarized a debate around the concept of photography as art. Peter Lik, the self-described fine-art photographer, is probably the most famous landscape photographer you have never heard of. From Lik’s press release on the purchase of the image he “announced the sale of the most expensive photograph in history”. In big, and bold letters, his website proudly proclaims “Peter Lik Makes Art History” and has set a “world record” for the sale of the image.
Along with the sale of Phantom, Lik now holds four spots on the Top 20 list of the most expensive photographs ever sold. All of this notoriety has seemingly secured “his position as a leader in the field of fine art photography”. Well this statement certainly gives me some pause as well as others in the art world. Personally I have a hard time placing Peter Lik in the same company as Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, well, you get the idea. All of these photographers, and many others, were pioneers that created powerful imagery through the lens of a camera. Ansel Adams developed the Zone System and inspired countless landscape photographers worldwide, including me. Eliot Porter is largely considered the Ansel Adams of color photography and his images shaped the development of the environmental movement. Stieglitz, over the span of his 50 year career, who instrumental in making photography an accepted art form and Edward Weston’s landscape work influenced a generation of American photographers.
It takes a certain amount of hubris to claim yourself a leader in the field of fine art photography. Peter Lik does this quite well. He is a consummate and masterful marketer who uses over the top techniques for promoting his photography. He has several published books, has appeared on a Weather Channel series, and his photography galleries, located all over the world, are posh temples for the display of his work. His images are decidedly garish and over-saturated for my own tastes but in contrast to the failings of web display, they can be quite impressive when viewed in person and under the right lighting conditions (I have visited his Honolulu gallery several times). For the most part I am not drawn to his work emotionally, and though I might not personally care for his images, there are those who do, and are willing to write very large checks to own one.
Phantom is an image of a light beam in Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon located just outside of Page, Arizona. The fact that a private collector would pay $6.5 million for an image that is not unique illustrates the excesses of people who have more money than sense. When I say “not unique” I mean this is an image of a natural phenomenon that occurs during the summer months in Antelope Canyon. Any competent photographer, with even rudimentary equipment, can capture an image much like Phantom. My own interpretation, entitled Ghost Beam is presented below. I have photographed quite a few light beams in slot canyons, as have countless other photographers. Just do a Google search and you will see what I mean. I certainly do not fault Peter for the excessive amount of the sale, and in fact would dance a jig if I had done so. But to think of this image as a seminal piece of art based solely on the fact that it was sold for a lot of money is hard to fathom. Does the fact that it sold for such a high dollar amount determine its definition and value as art? From an on-line article in The Independent, Claire Grafik, the head of exhibitions for the Photographers’ Gallery in London, said “Art’s worth is what someone is willing to pay for it”. I think that is true for most things but it still does not define “art”. Photography as art is a question that is nearly as old as the camera itself. The sculptor, Henry Moore, said “Art is the expression of imagination, not the duplication of reality”. Many believe that a photograph is simply a duplication of reality.
Photography is not art. It is technology – Johnathan Jones
Jonathan Jones, who writes for the Guardian, said “Photography is not art. It is technology”. He goes on to refer to Phantom as “like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel”. Jones, in the span of a few paragraphs, suggests that all of us who photograph confuse the act of taking a photograph with that of making art. He even suggests that “beauty is cheap if you point a camera at a grand phenomenon of nature”. For those of us who photograph landscapes, these are tough words to swallow. I do not believe for one second that any of us would consider the beauty of the grand landscape as cheap. The art comes from more than just pointing the camera. The camera is decidedly technological but what the photographer does with the camera is the art. David DuChemin said that “gear is good, but vision is better”. To counter Henry Moore’s assertion, I would suggest that vision is an expression of imagination? Henri Cartier-Bresson, with one click of the shutter, captured singular moments in time – The Decisive Moment. It was his vision and imagination that led to the moment of the shot. I believe all artists have vision, no matter the medium – painter, photographer, sculptor, mixed-media, and digital. An artist is someone who can imagine a completed work or concept and create it with the tools they have at hand. In this way a camera is no different than a paint brush or a chisel.
The work of a great photographer makes you look at the world differently.
Writing a rebuttal to Jonathan Jones’s critique, Sean O’Hagen said “The work of a great photographer makes you look at the world differently”. And that is exactly what the vision expressed in a great image should do. Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment speaks volumes to me as a landscape photographer. It is ultimately about the decisive moment I wish to capture, when the light and the landscape come together in a singular moment that expresses my vision, emotion, and spirit. Peter Lik’s Phantom is a decisive moment in the same way as my image Ghost Beam.
Does Peter Lik’s image, Phantom make us look at the world differently? Does my image, Ghost Beam? Both images express a kind of vision and they capture a decisive moment in time. But Phantom and Ghost Beam are just two more images in a long lexicon of Antelope Canyon photographs. But in the end, are these images art? Is Phantom really worth $6.5 million while I sell Ghost Beam for around $200? And what about the larger question at hand. Did Phantom really sell for $6.5 million or is it another scheme from the “marketing master”? Is this sale just a promotional ruse to get everyone talking about Peter Lik. Oddly enough it seems to be working.
Though I cannot speak for Peter Lik’s experience in Antelope, I can speak for mine. Ghost Beam does make me look at the world differently. When I made this image, it was the first time I experienced the beams, and it was nothing short of magical and spiritual. As the sun moved into position over the slot, I watched the opening turn from shadowed recess to a glowing hot light. Mere minutes later the beam of light descended to the canyon floor. Swirling dust within the chamber danced like shimmering ghosts within the beam as if their spirits had been awakened by the light. The image reminds me of that experience every time I see it. It was not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, or any less beautiful just because I pointed a camera at it. I refuse to define my own vision of “my art” by the words of a critic. The capture of this image was but one step in a series of stages. Processing, proofing, and printing are additional steps that bring the image closer to a work of art. Ghost Beam fits my definition of art. And by that definition Phantom is art as well.
I will continue to photograph the landscape and define my vision, and my art, in my own way.
I do wonder about the backlash that may come from this apparent sale. Is it a brilliant piece of marketing or an egotistical stunt? Time will tell and perhaps we will never know. If Peter Lik actually $6.5 million dollars from this image then more power to him. If it turns out to be a stunt then it is shameful. But I will continue to photograph the landscape and define my vision, and my art, in my own way. I hope all of you do as well.