In terms of what they are, the list of the world’s most expensive photos has a pretty mundane set of images. We’re not talking about Peter Lik’s or anyone else’s — but instead, we’re referencing Man Ray. Man Ray’s image, Le Violin, is the most expensive image sold to date as of early January 2024 when we’re writing this article. For the time, it was stunning. But today, people would have different feelings about it. Sure, it’s been copied over a thousand times and imitated even more. But there’s still something else wrong with it — at least to some in society.
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A Constructive Criticism of Le Violin by Man Ray
Yes, the Violin by Man Ray is the world’s most expensive photograph, according to Wikipedia. Here, we have a photograph of a woman in a headpiece exposing her nude back. The photo is lit and exposed so that she exhibits smooth skin, and we see no bone structure. She also has tattoos on her back that look like the holes in a violin — or at least it’s supposed to look that way. Art Republic reports on the claims that the holes were added later on when Man Ray painted them on. Then the image was photographed again to be a final piece. The Getty Museum also backs this claim up and uses the same exact language around the photograph. Combine this with the curvature of her body, and we can see how Man Ray was trying to play with an idea.
For the time, this is an incredible image. Not many people were playing with ideas like this and simply documenting what was in front of them. But Ray could’ve taken this even further by curling the subject’s hair like a violin’s head. There also could’ve been strings going down the back to make her look even more like a violin.
On the other hand, we wonder how this image would’ve looked with a more well-done set. As a former concertmaster violinist, I can tell you how music stands, sheet music, bows, and cases are much more important to a musician. So, with that said, why did Man Ray choose not to place his subject inside a case of some sort?
The World’s Most Expensive Photo Would be Cancelled Today
Contemporary conversations about the photograph discuss how there’s a tension between objectification and an appreciation of the female body. If this image were created today, there would absolutely be an uproar simply because of how advanced we are in artistic endeavors. The same questions that I asked would be considered by many others. Even then, some might debate back and forth.
Surely, there are ways to do this kind of work that seem more tasteful and respectful. Photographer Anna Laza, whom we’ve interviewed before, does a great job of photographing the human body as a landscape.
How We Think About Art
Art differs from content through creative expression and prioritizing that over making something to please an algorithm. One of our favorite photographers who does this is Brooke DiDonato, as she makes several conceptual images mostly using props she creates herself. Then, there is editing involved at times. But she makes images with the intent of self-expression first. Her images aren’t typically what anyone else sees on algorithms.
Do we know what Man Ray was trying to express in this image? No — but today, there’s a much better way to confirm authenticity in the creative process.