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Recently the photograph below, Rhein II by Andreas Gursky sold for a record $3.9m (£2.5m).

(Source: Wikipedia)

This reduced thumbnail does no justice to what is a three meter wide plexiglass mounted artifact, the impact of which is greatly reduced on a computer screen. What the picture does do, though, is to highlight the difference between the types of photograph judged as popular and those judged as art. The former view is effectively expressed here:

Take a good look at this photo. What do you make of it ? Like it ?

No, nor do I, really. Not thrilling at all, is it ? If the horizon wasn’t quite so..er..horizontal it could be mistaken for the end of a roll of film. Something snapped over the photographer’s shoulder as a means of getting to the end of the roll, thus being able to process and expose all the proper photos in taken beforehand.

(The Sharp Single)

The latter view could be summed up here:

That said, it could be a long time before a photograph comes along that will top Gursky’s print. This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable – I should say unforgettable – contemporary twist on Germany’s famed genre and favourite theme: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature.

(Florence Waters, Daily Telegraph)

My sympathies lie with the latter view, absolutely so. Just how effective a photograph this is made very clear by an attempt I made yesterday afternoon to reproduce something similar. There's a stretch of the Chain and Rocks Canal that is as straight as the Rhine in Gursky's photograph, also bounded by green levees and pathways. But, even allowing for slight differences in perspective and positioning, the resulting photograph (below) has nothing of the magic of Rhein II.Why is this?

Firstly, the trees on the skyline break up the line of the horizon and destroy the sense of width and space that you see in Rhein II. Secondly, the textures of sky, grass and path are far too complicated. The same applies to color. The least complicated texture in the Chain of Rocks photograph is the water itself, but the opposite is the case in Rhein II. Gursky has also over-saturated the green on the banks, restricting his color palette to a relatively small set of green-yellows; he has done a similar thing with the grays of the sky, path and water. All of these reductions and changes of emphasis enhance the artistry of the photograph even as they reduce the aspect of realism.

Gursky demonstrates in Rhein II just why he is a great artist. Now, as regards the prices paid for art these days, well, that has simply become absurd.

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