A strange press release touting the private sale of $10m for three photographs by nature photographer Peter Lik provoked a strong reaction from The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones:
The news that landscape photographer Peter Lik has sold his picture Phantom for $6.5m (£4.1m), setting a new record for the most expensive photograph of all time, will be widely taken as proof to the contrary. In our world where money talks, the absurd inflated price that has been paid by some fool for this “fine art photograph” will be hailed as proof that photography has arrived as art.
Yet a closer look at Phantom reveals exactly the opposite. 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.
Phantom is a black-and-white shot taken in Antelope Canyon, Arizona. 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. We’ve all got that option in our photography software. Yeah, my pics of the Parthenon this summer looked really awesome in monochrome.
Lik’s photograph is of course beautiful in a slick way, but beauty is cheap if you point a camera at a grand phenomenon of nature. The monochrome detailing of the canyon is sculptural enough, and a shaft of sunlight penetrating its depths becomes the phantom of the title. Yet, in fact, this downward stream of light is simply a natural aspect of Antelope Canyon. Look it up online and you will find a vast range of photographs that all show the same feature. They are all just as striking as Phantom. The photographer has added nothing of any value to what was there already. Google is full of “great” pictures of this awe-inspiring natural feature.
Someone has been very foolish with their money, mistaking the picturesque for high art.