How much would you be willing to pay for a photograph? Thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars? How about 3.4 million? Because that is the cheapest photograph that we’ll be featuring on our list. 

While you have some famous photographers who work on commissions, others just happen to find their work captivating a large audience. In a literal sense, photographs capture light. But in a more ephemeral sense, it captures moments with all of their flaws, perfections, and emotions, each one telling you more about the artist as well as their subject. 

A look at some of the most expensive photographs of all time 

Every photograph tells the story of both its subject and its artist. However, some of these pictures just so happen to tell a more engaging and gripping story about their subject or have a unique place in history. 

Dead Troops Talk ($3.6 million)

It only makes sense to kick off this list with the least expensive one of the bunch, artist Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk from 1992. And nearly 20 years later, it would sell for twice as much as what the artist was expecting, at $3.6 million. The scene depicts Russian soldiers after an ambush during their campaign in Afghanistan, coming back to life. 

While many interpret this as the troops coing back to life, others have interepreted it as soldiers speaking to each other in their dying moments. Along with being one of the best examples of narrative storytelling through pictures, it also comments on the horrors of war. 

Richard Prince’s Cowboy ($3.7 million)

Teetering fairly close to the Dead Troops Talk picture from before, Richard Prince’s Cowboy also sold for a staggering price of $3,749,000. But unlike some of the other images on this list, the Cowboy is an image of another image, better dubbed “re-photography.” Richard Prince himself pioneered this style of contemporary art, as the image looks to deconstruct many of the ideals associated with the Cowboy archetype. 

Freedom, adventure, and a general sense of machismo are all romanticized ideals of the famous Marlboro Man. In fact, by being an image of an image, it shows how far the American identity has shifted. This picture is possibly one of the few you’ll find that show a complex interplay between societal structures, context, and the image itself. 

Untitled 93($3.8 million)

Cindy Sherman still remains one of the biggest names in contemporary photography, with one of her earlier works selling for $3.8 million. The image was part of a larger series of self-portraits that out aside all of those unrealistic beauty standards placed on women. 

Untitled 93 shows Sherman making a grotesque face, with her hair messy and little to no makeup. Instead of giving in to the beauty standards of the time, she focused on honesty and vulnerability. More importantly, the self-portrait actually brings the artist into focus, further emphasizing her vulnerability in the image. 

Rhine II (4.3 million)

Andreas Gursky is easily one of the most recognizable names in photography, as this particular image held the record for the most expensive photograph sold until 2014. At a whopping $4.3 million, it is easily one of the most valuable photographs in the world. 

And there’s something poetic about this particular image being one of the most expensive ones isn’t it? For all of the fancy lenses and equipment that people get, the Rhine shows that photography is sometimes about catching the simple mundanity of life. Along with being a completely symmetrical image, Grusky also edited it significantly to remove all traces of human life. The result is an image that feels calming yet isolating, serene yet lonely. 

Rhine II also teaches photographers that composition and minimalism can be more gripping than other exciting aspects of human life. It also gives hope to many new photographers, seeing how the image only needed a simple camera. 

The Flatiron ($11.8 million)

If you ever showed someone this image and asked them if it was a picture or a painting, people would unanimously say that it was a painting. Few images are as hauntingly beautiful as this $11.8 million picture by Edward Steichen. Would you believe that the original bidding price for the image was just $2 million. 

Along with being able to effortlessly capture the feeling of living in that specific time period, it also shows off his incredible skill in taking powerful and imposing images of architecture. More importantly, the success of this image proves that there is still room for classic architectural photography in the modern day. 

Better yet, it’s also telling people how they can create a visually stunning cityscape with the right use of shadows and natural lighting. It’s possibly one of the most impressive images ever taken by a photographer.

Le Violon d’Ingres

At an astounding price of $12.4 million, Le Violon d’Ingres stands as the most expensive photograph in the world right now. In fact, the bidding for this work of art was so intense, it lasted about 10 minutes as individuals wanted to get their hands on this surrealist photograph. 

Man Ray, brought a unique surrealist touch to his images with nude back of his muse that have violing holes. It’s simple yet beautiful, and shows just how much people value surrealist photographs, regardless of which era they come from. 

Conclusion 

Some pictures just happen to speak to people on a more personal level. And those are exactly the types of images that sell for millions of dollars. There’s a lesson in here for new photographers, which is that you don’t have to worry about expensive gear. All you really need is a good idea to see the world. 

Street Photography