Australian photographer Peter Lik will rarely pass up an opportunity to show his biceps. There he was, wearing a cowboy hat, trekking up a snowy mountainside, arms bare. There he was, behind the wheel of a green truck, flexing. And there he was, straddling an arid dune, triceps sunburned.
Lik is even less shy about his accomplishments. He describes himself both as the “world’s most influential fine art photographer” as well as “one of the most important artists of the 21st century.” It’s obvious promotional hype, but Lik does indeed now command worldwide distinction.
This week, he sold a photograph named “Phantom,” showing a shaft of light cutting through a monochromatic Arizona landscape. The price: $6.5 million. That’s reportedly the most ever paid for a photograph. (The identity of the buyer wasn’t disclosed, but his lawyer, Joshua Roth of Los Angeles, vouched for him in a press release.)
The sale was only the latest big-time score for the Australian photographer, who has made a career out of shooting landscapes and wearing cowboy hats. Despite Lik’s “dismissal by art critics,” as one paper put it, his shtick nonetheless has great resonance among buyers — to the consternation of staid art experts.
“In 2014, Peter shattered all world records by selling the most expensive photograph in history,” his Web site said. “… To accompany this sale, Peter’s images ‘Illusion’ and ‘Eternal Moods’ were also acquired for $2.4 million and $1.1 million, respectively. Along with his sale of ‘One’ for $1 million in 2010, Peter now holds four spots out of the top 20 most expensive photographs ever sold.”
The list he joins includes some of the world’s most-established photographers, including Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall. They’re all considered artists of the highest order who broadened the conceptual limits of photography and held exhibitions in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries. Most of their priciest work sold at auction houses. And now, there’s Lik, whose $6.5 million photograph sold privately. How has this relatively unknown outsider done it?
But to Guardian Art Critic Jonathan Jones, Lik’s “Phantom” says more about the growing role of technology in photography than it does art — a label he doesn’t think Lik’s work warrants. “Phantom is a black-and-white shot taken in Antelope Canyon, Arizona,” he wrote. “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.”
But that’s pretty much all Lik does. He describes himself as “synonymous” with “pristine images” of nature, which he pursues with the restless ebullience of the Crocodile Hunter. “The quality of production and [his] imagery is great,” Megan Dick, the director of Australia’s MiCK gallery, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “The quality of art is not.” She said art was driven by ideas — not documentation. “Being such a literal interpretation of the subject, landscape photography is more in the realm of documentary rather than art.”
Some art experts haven’t been able to figure out how, then, his artwork has sold for so much. They’re pretty, no doubt, in the way that your desktop background and screensaver are pretty. But with millions of dollars at stake, does prettiness cut it? “These prices are very high and certainly, in terms of other successful photographic artists, seem somewhat bizarre,” the Herald quoted art consultant David Hulme saying. Commenting on one of Lik’s pieces that went for $1 million, he added: “I don’t fancy the owner’s chances of recouping anywhere near what he paid for this one.”
That assessment hasn’t stopped Lik from selling. Take it from photographer Scott Reither, who also sells pictures and once worked as one of Lik’s salesmen. He wrote a lengthy blog post on his travails in which he spoke of hustling photographs like a used car salesman and pushing fine art on a Las Vegas clientele caught up in “impulsive behavior while visiting Sin City.” Reither said he sold $700,000 worth of Lik’s photography in seven months and quit, unable to “stomach it any further.”
“I felt like I had to feed people a bunch of lies,” he wrote, questioning the “absurd pricing structure for the not-very limited editions of 950″ prints: “I know the subject of art and value is a touchy and sensitive subject, and I know there’s plenty of foolish people that will pay a ridiculous amount of money for something solely because it’s priced at a ridiculous amount of money … the discussion with prospective buyers had to become about value, [and] I was done because I did not believe in the value of the product.”
The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones likewise questions the value of the $6.5 million “Phantom.” He said Lik merely took an already stunning view and “added nothing of value to what was already there. … Someone has been very foolish with their money, mistaking the picturesque for high art.”