In another thread (about Michael's landscapes) there was a brief exchange about the topic of "masterpieces." Masterpieces, and where they come from and how they're created, is a topic that much interests me. Here are are parts of that exchange:
Iconic masterpieces are largely a product of saturation marketing anyway. Most photographers hate these so-called masterpieces and would much rather be remembered for other (often more personal) work. Or, more likely, their contribution to photography as a whole. A single image says nothing about the photographer. Everybody has at least one masterpiece in them.
As for "masterpieces", here's my take. I do photography because it's what drives me. I do it for my own purposes; for my own creative satisfaction. Then, like most artists, I enjoy sharing my work with others. Accolades are welcome, but so is criticism. We learn from our failures.
Lables such as "masterpiece" are external to the process of creating art. They're arbitrary and subjective, not to mention fleeting in most cases.
On your last point, I totally agree with that commercial success should not be the only criteria to assess the masterpieceness of a piece.
I disagree with everything Stephen Best said. I think masterpieces are recognized for what they are, and that's when the marketing begins. Lots of things are heavily marketed, and fall on their ass anyway, because they aren't any good. I doubt that anyone (or very few people) who created a genuine masterpiece wound up hating it. I've never heard of such a case. They may hate what happened to them after they created the masterpiece, when people hold up all their subsequent work to it, and find it lacking...but most people I've read about have a certain fondness for their masterpieces. Leonardo dragged the Mona Lisa around with him for almost half his lifetime. Masterpieces are like what the Supreme Court justice said about pornography: I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.
I think a single image can say a lot about a photographer. A single image from D-Day, or a single image from the Spanish Civil War, certainly told me a lot about Robert Capa. Any great image by Diane Arbus will tell you a lot about about her. As for "everyone has one masterpiece in him," that seems patently to be not the case. A large number of people seem to have trouble rising to the level of competence in what they do, much less having to worry about creating a masterpiece.
I sympathise with what Michael says the in the first paragraph, but then he had to go write the second: I seriously disagree that the idea that a masterpiece is external to the process of creating art. I think, in fact, that creating masterpieces is perhaps the whole object of it. Otherwise, you're just messing about in a "lifestyle;" when you go off on a photography trip, are you just hoping for a bunch of really pretty good pictures? Or are you hoping to make a really exquisite image that will pull you and others back again and again, to look at and think about?
The designation of a masterpiece is not arbitrary, and their life is not fleeting; what is arbitrary and fleeting is the public relations tendency to call anything that might possibly be better than average a "masterpiece." But you can go back a thousand years and find that paintings that were thought to be masterpieces then, still are. One of the reasons a lot of early photogaphy wasn't thrown away is that it was considered pretty good, and it still is. But, exactly and scientifically designating a masterpiece isn't easy: it's that, "I know it when I see it" business.
I agree with Bernard that commercial success is not the only measure of a masterpiece, but I will point out (after fashion is discounted -- let's say, arbitrarily, 50 years after the artist's death) that the very best paintings and photographs tend to command the very highest prices, and there is a general cultural agreement within given cultural spheres about what is "the very best." I have heard that there are ~ 700 to 1000 copies of "Moonrise" printed and signed by Adams; they currently sell (for an average good copy) for about $25,000. If there are 700, that means that one image is now worth, in the aggregate, about $17 million...
I think the idea of "masterpiece" needs a good deal of contemplation. Especially when you get older.