It may seem ironic that a photograph of cheap goods would set a record for the most expensive contemporary photograph ever sold, but Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent is far more than a visual inventory. In a single large-scale image digitally stitched together from multiple images taken in a 99 Cents Only store in Los Angeles, the seemingly endless rows of stuff, with shoppers’ heads floating anonymously above the merchandise, more closely resemble abstract or Impressionist painting than contemporary photography. Which was precisely Gursky’s point. From the Tokyo stock exchange to a Mexico City landfill, the German architect and photographer uses digital manipulation and a distinct sense of composition to turn everyday experiences into art. As the curator Peter Galassi wrote in the catalog for a 2001 retrospective of Gursky’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, “High art versus commerce, conceptual rigor versus spontaneous observation, photography versus painting ... for Gursky they are all givens—not opponents but companions.” That ability to render the man-made and mundane with fresh eyes has helped modern photography enter the art world’s elite. In 2006, in the heady days before the Great Recession, 99 Cent sold for $2.3 million at auction. The record for a contemporary photograph has since been surpassed, but the sale did more than any other to catapult modern photography into the pages of auction catalogs alongside the oil paintings and marble sculptures by old masters.
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