Concepts, Real World Experiences and 7 Tips
If you’re not familiar with NFTs, they are digital certificates that trace ownership. That’s it.
Epic boondoggle; dumbfounded incredulity; not-so-subtle hatred; or the belief that the revolution has finally come are opinions I often hear.
With so much talk about NFTs, I thought I’d look deeper, especially at implications for fine art photographers, and share my experience in creating them.
Oddly, I’ve some familiarity in this realm. Way back in 2016, I was commissioned by Kevin McCoy of Monegraph, one of the first art blockchain platforms, to create unique photographs for the site. I thought, “why not.” Of course, I had no clue what this all meant (and barely do at the moment).
It might take some time for fine art photographers–and nearly everyone else–to wrap their heads around what actually is being traded, however, because it’s seemingly in conflict with crafted objects of the photo art world and the concepts they represent. In fact, this notion is bifurcated: on the one side is the photographic print; on the other, its record (NFT).
What does this mean for fine art photographers? Why the frenzy? Is it a fad (remember Pet Rocks)?
Art dealers and collectors buy and sell one-of-a-kind paintings or limited edition photographs and prints. But how can they be truly identified and certified as such? Tracing the object’s provenance is one way. But because it’s a laborious manual process that is prone to error, it is unreliable and open to fakery.
NFTs aim to make this easier (hence the non-fungible part). Basically, it is an unalterable digital record that is openly shared (note: there are caveats) across a network of computers. This record can be bought and sold–not the object.
In other words, NFT is a digital provenance that people collect.
For example, it’s like buying a Robert Frank photograph with the MoMA collection-number stamped on the back, then tossing away the print and keeping the label–and then selling just the sticker. (I recall seeing a film of Frank drilling through his work, purposely destroying years of photographs as a statement about collectability and rarity.)
If this sounds stunningly baffling, there are artworld precedents.
While I’m hardly a conceptual art expert, take a look at Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings. Perhaps along with Donald Judd and others, he questioned the traditional relationship between an idea, the subjectivity of the artist, and the rendered artwork. LeWitt didn’t “create” the art–that was left to the owner. He instead sold the design for others to manifest.
This somewhat parallels an NFT–but not entirely because a physical 2D object is still created in this example.
Without going down a further conceptual art rabbit hole, there are other examples where certificates become the art itself. A piece by Robert Barry instructed empty galleries in Torino, LA, and Amsterdam to close; the only physical representation of the work was its certificate of authenticity and three copies of the invitation sent out to promote a show that never happened.
Was this an early NFT? It’s getting closer…
NFT’s take these notions even further, however, by dissociating completely with the object or photographic print. It’s a way of taking something commonplace and making it rare–the opposite of what we normally think of as art. This seemingly impossible conundrum baffles traditional dealers, artists and institutions, but seem to flourish with technologists and young people who not only understand this notion but are perfectly comfortable with “owning” a digital reference.
Still, I think the main takeaway is that NFTs trace the legacy of conceptualists, representing the ultimate and initially extremely hard to grasp unmooring from physical representations. Yes, listings on NFT art platforms sometimes include a print or file, but that’s because being untethered from an object is difficult to fully embrace at this moment in time.
NFTs for fine art photographers have several benefits. Blockchain is a way to clearly trace art creation and ownership. Since it is centralized, proof of provenance is nearly impossible to hack, alter or delete because the code is distributed on a myriad of computers worldwide.
Although some galleries are quickly joining the NFT bandwagon, it currently is a way for photographers to connect with new collectors, audiences and groups.
Finally, NFTs represent novel revenue sources. The photographer can sell the piece directly to earn income, with affordable commissions and fees averaging less than fifteen percent. Crucially, royalties (again, in theory) are paid to the artist each time it’s flipped (via “smart contract”), providing ongoing automatic revenue. I’ve started to use NFTs in grant proposals as a way to donate a portion of recurring royalties back to community groups.
Some consider NFTs the ultimate in greed, since technology allows for resale moments after the purchase, something the artworld frowns on.
Also, NFT seem bad for the environment. Computational power required to make the code is very resource-intensive, burning massive amounts of energy. However, “Proof-of-Stake” is an eco-friendly alternative to “Proof-of-Work” technology used by Bitcoin and Ethereum. (For some perspective, consider the environmental impact art fairs generates in plane travel, packaging waste, car pollution, energy costs, etc.)
A big challenge is value. Since crypto currencies are involved–not dollars–value fluctuate wildly. Massive price changes go up and down due fiat being pegged to Ethereum, Bitcoin and others. A wildcard is the digital blockchain industry itself, which is constantly morphing with new elements, updates and upgrades. Additional issues involve checks and balances and copyright. In theory, anyone can make an NFT and offer it for sale. If this happens, the owner can lodge a complaint to have it removed, however.
Organized by the Brooklyn Rail, this Zoom discussion is one of the best on the topic, “Art on the Blockchain: Debates on NFTs & Crypto Art: New Social Environment #255”:
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How to Make and Sell an NFT for Fine Art Photographers
If you are a fine art photographer and want to dive in, here’s a primer.
First, spend time doing research. Browse various platforms to see what is published, if it sells and for how much. Read some of the recent flood of articles on NFTs and follow some of the key players. You’ll see a slew of things ranging from dreck merch to some interesting art, so keep an open mind. When seeing the art shown on each site, imagine your work being there. Photography listings are scarce.
Next, come up with an NFT strategy. This entails pricing, images to select and selling method. Options could be placing a few unique images across several different platforms to become comfortable with the process and see which site works best. Or, you might want to drop a new piece weekly on the same platform. Consider too whether you want to sell via reserve, fixed price or auction. Determine your budget because there are related costs (see more below). There is no right or wrong solution since things are quickly evolving.
Then, determine which art-related platform to post on. Think of this as a sizeable gallery-like organization that houses a collection of artists loosely oriented around a theme. At the moment, there are many to choose from, and with the constant flux, I suspect there will be consolidation. None specialize in photography.
Ones to consider are:
|Rarible||https://rarible.com/||Open but could be limiting|
|Nifty Gateway||https://niftygateway.com||Open (I need to confirm)|
|Verisart||https://verisart.com/certificates||Not officially an NFT–it’s a blockchain tracing provenance|
|Opensea||https://opensea.io||Open; items from other platforms can appear here.|
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