Will this be the world’s most expensive photograph?

Will this be the world’s most expensive photograph?

From the Fine Art Photography Podcast: Man Ray’s one-of-a-kind print of ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ sets a new record as most expensive photograph ever sold at auction.

In this episode of the Fine Art Photography podcast, we discuss Man Ray’s famous 1924 photograph, which was recently auctioned, becoming the most expensive photograph ever sold. Learn more about the photograph, the photographer, and the model.

This episode was written prior to the auction and tells the story of a one-of-a-kind photograph that sold for more than $12 million.

Full episode transcript

Will Man Ray’s “Le Violon d’Ingres” soon be the world’s most expensive photograph?


Hey, everybody Keith Dotson here, welcoming you back to another episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast. Later this month on May 14, 2022, Christie’s Auction House in New York will be auctioning a brilliant world-class collection of surrealist art.

The auction is called “The Surrealist World of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs and Melvin Jacobs” and it will include many of the marquee names from the surrealist and dada period of art, paintings, objects, and photographs, (oh, this might be a good time to apologize for any mispronunciations) but the auction will include works Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp, Dorothea Tanning, and many others.

Photographers represented in the auction include Lee Miller, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Alfred Eisenstadt.

But the artist I want to highlight in this episode is Man Ray, the innovative American-born artist who made his career in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. Man Ray has quite a number of works featured in the auction, but one piece in particular is generating a lot of excitement, because it could very possibly become the world’s most expensive photograph.

His photograph Le Violon d’Ingres is estimated at between 5 million and 7 million U.S. dollars. You may not recognize the name, but if you’re a student or collector of photography, you’ll surely recognize it.

The 1924 photograph shows the back of a seated nude woman with black violin f-holes on her back — of course the obvious allusion is that her shape resembles that of a violin. She wears a turban wrapped around her head, and she has a patterned piece of fabric wrapped around her lower hips. The auction essay calls this photograph one of the most recognized images in 20th Century art.

The title and the image itself refers to the 19th-century French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres who also painted a nude woman, seen from the back, seated on the corner of a ned, with her hair in a turban. The essay explains that Ingres was a highly-regarded painter, but he was also an avid violin player and wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but the public disregarded his musical talent.

The essay says that Man Ray’s title, Le Violon d’Ingres is also a French saying that means to do something you enjoy just for fun — as Ingres was forced to do with his violin.

Man Ray worked often with this model, Alice Prin, better known as Kiki de Montparnasse, and he said the first time he saw her disrobed, that her physique reminded him of an Ingres painting.

Man Ray considered himself primarily a painter, but he worked in a variety of media, and he is probably best known now as a photographer. In addition to camera-based photographs, he also made photograms — which he modestly called Rayograms — which were made by arranging various objects onto the photographic paper and exposing it to light, creating abstract designs left behind by the objects blocking the light.

For this photograph, man Ray used a two-step process — combining his photograph of Kiki with a Rayogram technique. He first cut the violin f-hole shapes into a piece of card stock, and used that as a template to expose the f-holes onto a piece of photo paper. Then he placed the negative into the enlarger, and exposed the photograph of kiki onto the paper where the f-holes had already been exposed. 

The result is a one of a kind unique photographic print. It’s a gelatin silver print flush mounted on board, fairly large at 19 inches x 14 3⁄4 inches or 48.5 x 37.5 centimeters.

One of the great things about looking at works of art on auction sites is that you can really scroll and zoom-in to look at high-resolution details of the art. Zooming in to study the surface of the print, we can see dust and scratches, scuffs, and marks where the print has been retouched or possibly repaired. We can see that the image is not particularly sharp in places — maybe lens flaws or perhaps the model moved a little bit. Man Ray’s awkward signature appears in the bottom right of the print, and it’s dated 1924 in his hand.

On the back of the frame, we can see adhesive tags that serve as an exhibition record of the print.
This print, being offered in the Christie’s auction, was bought by Rosalind Jacobs directly from Man Ray and was in her collection until her passing.

I said earlier that this is a unique original one of a kind print, combining rayogram with photography in one image. that’s true, but before sending the print to Rosalind Jacobs, Man Ray photographed the original print with a 5 x 7 camera making a copy negative. All subsequent editions and reproductions of the image have come from that copy neg, which is now housed in a museum in Paris.

So, will this become the most expensive photograph in history? Man Ray certainly has the pedigree — so it’s very possible. We’ll find out on May 14.

Currently the official most expensive photograph is called Rhein II, by the photographer / artist Andres Gursky. This is a huge print made in 1999, famous for being an early example of digital manipulation. A lot of photographers, myself included — look at Rhein II and scratch our heads on the record sale price of $4,338,500, auctioned by Christie’s in 2011.

Of course, photographer Peter Lik has claimed the most expensive photograph of all time with a 2014 private sale of his landscape photograph called “Phantom,” shot in Arizona’s famous Antelope Canyon. This sale price has never been verified and the buyer has not come forward, but I’ve read that an attorney for the buyer has acknowledged the sale price as authentic.

Other photographers in the stratosphere of sales include Cindy Sherman, Gilbert and George, and Richard Prince — who inexplicably to me — sells photographs of other people’s photographs. He earned a lot of controversy a few years ago selling large gallery prints of other people’s Instagram photos.
Other Man Ray photographs also rank among the most expensive of all time.

Man Ray was born as Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia on August 27, 1890. He did his best to keep the details of his early life and family history — even his real name — a secret. He died on November 18, 1976.

Alice Prin was a frequent model for Man Ray, and she was in fact a muse for a large number of Paris jazz age artists. In addition to modeling, she was also a performer, actress, memoirist, and painter in her own right. She became such a well-known and popular fixture in the Montparnasse artist quarter of Paris that she became known as the Queen of Montparnasse, and after she adopted the nickname Kiki, she became known as Kiki de Montparnasse. An illegitimate child, she was raised in desperate poverty by her grandmother. After moving to live with her mother in Paris, she was required to work as a child, and began modeling at age 14.

If you’d like to look at all the artworks to be auctioned, you can see the entire collection at Christie’s website — google it or you can find the link in my episode description.

That’s all I’ve got for this episode — thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Post-auction update:

Hey everybody Keith Dotson here with an update to this story, and if you didn’t already hear the news, not only did the Man Ray photograph  Le Violon d’Ingres set a new record for the most expensive photograph ever sold, it absolutely shattered the record by nearly three times. The final auction price was $12, 400,000. You may remember the Gursky photograph that previously held the record was sold in 2011 for $4,338,500. 

The hammer fell on the final price was hammered after a bidding war between two callers that lasted nearly ten minutes.

Certainly exciting times in the upper echelons of the art market these days.

Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Links and Sources

Christie’s, “The Surrealist World of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs and Melvin Jacobs,” “Le Violon d’Ingres,” 1924 Lot Essay.

Wikipedia: May Ray

Wikipedia: Alice Prin

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