Photography’s Long Short Road to the Non-Fungible Token
Photography’s Long, Short Road to the Non-Fungible Token
Commissioned by The Fellowship, with thanks to Chris McCall
Republished in Zum magazine (Brazil) n. 25, October 2023
a: a unique digital identifier that cannot be copied, substituted,
or subdivided, that is recorded in a blockchain, and that is
used to certify authenticity and ownership
(as of a specific digital asset and specific rights relating to it)
b: the asset that is represented by an NFT
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2022
Photography’s claims to be an art were raised
precisely by those who were turning photography into a business.
Gisèle Freund, Photography in France in the 19th Century, 1936
There is an old joke about a stranger asking a local for directions. “Well, I wouldn’t start from here,” the local replies. The advice might be unhelpful, or it might not. It could be the local really is used to getting to that place from somewhere else, and perhaps the best they can suggest is to go there first. Or it could be the local knows that what really matters is what the stranger might gain from starting somewhere else.
What follows is a set of thoughts about the emerging relationships between photography and the NFT (non-fungible token), but to get there it is best to go first to another place. In fact, it is best to go to a number of other places, for each will offer something different that might even change the understanding of where we think we want to get to.
There is surprisingly little in the artistic or technical development of photography over the last 180 years that would have surprised its pioneering inventors and early commentators. Not X-rays, nor photocopy machines. Not smartphones with their networked cameras, nor the commodification of the immaterial image in the form of the NFT. When photography was new, the understanding of it was not clouded by habit or presumption. It could be seen for its pure, or impure potential. Wide and open. Pretty much all of what photography has become thus far could be foreseen right there at the beginning. There is something reassuring in this, especially in our amnesiac and self-obsessed culture that likes to think its own moment and challenges are fundamentally different from anything encountered in the past. But it is also unsettling. All our photographic complexity and diversity, all the commercial imperatives and artistic ambition of today… how could they have been foretold in a such supposedly simpler era, so long ago?
When William Henry Fox Talbot came up with the photographic negative, many positive images could be produced from a single source. This made photography a two-stage conception that is now so familiar to our understanding of the medium that we barely think about it. There is image capture and there is output, and to this day most photographic activity involves these two stages, even when it is digital. The means of capture and the range of outputs have grown exponentially, but the principle was there in Talbot’s negative, and its implications were profound. Photography would be productive and reproductive.
Perhaps a little less widely appreciated than the invention of the negative is the fact that Talbot counted Charles Babbage among his good friends. Babbage was a fellow polymath and the father of, among other things, modern computing. He pushed hard at the consequences of the fact that in principle, a great deal information – numerical, visual, textual, and more – could be converted into binary form: ones and zeros. In that form it could be stored, distributed, cross-referenced and even used for problem solving. With this insight, plus help from his wife and partner Ada Lovelace, Babbage produced some of the earliest designs and prototypes for computers.
Talbot’s version of photography and Babbage’s version of computing were roughly contemporary, and quite rudimentary, but the essentials were there and subsequent generations refined them. They were refined in parallel until, of course, they could be combined. This combination began over a century ago: the first image was sent electronically in 1920. Neither Talbot nor Babbage would be remotely taken aback by your smartphone, nor the Internet upon which it depends. And tucked in the corner of that phone is at least one little black box with a piece of glass at the front, and a light sensitive surface at the back. Talbot and Babbage would recognise these instantly.
Most inventions can be seen as products of their time, but they are also somehow late. Photography and modern computing were no exception. The various elements of each were known well before the 1830s, but inventions do not just ‘happen’. They need to be desired, wished for, imagined. The knowledge is one thing; the desire is another. Inventions happen when they do, but not out of the blue. The same could be said for the blockchain technology that is the basis of the NFT. It arrived late.
Pieces of paper
It is significant that the market for photographic prints emerged initially as an offshoot of the used book trade, towards the end of the nineteenth century. This market was not for contemporary images, but older ones. In the 1880s the new technique of halftone printing had allowed photographic images to be converted into dots of various sizes so that they could be printed alongside typeset text on the pages of books, magazines and newspapers. This process both speeded up and lowered the cost of illustrated printed matter. Before that, photographs either had to transposed as woodblocks or engraved on metal plates for printing, or hand-made darkroom prints had to be glued directly to the pages (‘tipped-in’, to use the correct terminology). The emerging market was for these older tipped-in prints. Books would be broken up so that the prints, which were more tonally nuanced and detailed than the cruder halftone imagery that was fast becoming standard, could be sold individually. A lot of the artistically ambitious photography of the nineteenth century, as well as the most beautiful architectural, topographic, industrial and portrait photography had been produced as tipped-in prints for publications. Sometimes in quite large numbers.
Not long after, a more modern photographic art began to emerge, and the American Alfred Stieglitz had an interesting place in this story. He is a figure renowned in fairly equal measure for his own photographic art, for his canniness as a gallerist and publisher, and for the sharp revisions in attitude he made to both. Stieglitz hedged his bets between the wall and the page as sites for photography. He set up galleries but also a finely printed journal of photographic art, Camera Work (1903-17). He often found that the prints made for the pages of Camera Work, in techniques such as gravure and collotype, were superior to the artists’ darkroom prints of the same images. At times he took to exhibiting these prints intended for tipping-in. Framed on the wall of his gallery, they blurred any easy distinction between publication and exhibition. Modern photography would belong to both page and wall, but rather more to the page, at least until the late 1960s.
A couple of years ago, a well-known photography art market professional congratulated me on a book I had written about the work made for magazines by the American photographer Walker Evans (b. 1903, the year Stieglitz first published Camera Work). Throughout his working life, Evans had paid close attention to the page as his prime context. More often than not he set his own assignments, wrote the accompanying text and oversaw the layouts. Where most magazine work is a collective or committee effort, often involving great compromise, Evans’ magazine pages were just as much ‘his’ as the pages of his well-known books. But the congratulation coming my way was slightly back-handed. “It’s great that you are paying such attention to photographic ephemera.” I knew where he was coming from (the auction house, basically) but I pushed back a little, suggesting those mass-produced pages were more culturally and artistically significant than the prints that were a necessary stage in their realisation. “If anything, it is the prints that ought to be considered ephemeral, even if the art market thinks otherwise,” I replied.
Money talks, if not always very coherently. We ought not to let the auction house or the museum determine what is significant and what is not. This is not to say they value the wrong things, but there is still a cultural hierarchy that puts museums and museum artifacts at the top, galleries lower down, books much lower, magazines lower still, and the Internet grubbing around in the mud of common culture. Nevertheless, we know, we know, photography has been significant because it scrambles all that. Good work gets made in all these contexts, and there’s a century-long history to show that. Museums and art markets have always lagged behind, and have never been able to take in the full scope of photography’s possibilities. Understandably, they attempt to bend photography to their will, shaping it to their own preference, or they concentrate on the most amenable aspects of it. In doing so, they tacitly accept that what can be important about photography might escape or even undermine their efforts.
I recall a visit to the Jeu de Paume, in Paris, to see a retrospective of the work of Robert Frank. The galleries were packed with people, especially the room dedicated to Frank’s mid-1950s body of work, The Americans. Visitors standing three or four deep waited to approach the small, framed prints. Looking around, I saw a young couple frustrated at how difficult it was to see anything. Dejected, they sat down and picked up a copy of the book of The Americans that was attached to the bench by a wire. They became engrossed, leaning over each page, studying the images. In truth what they had in their hands was the artwork. Frank’s achievement was the book, not that set of exhibition prints. For the price of their two tickets to the show they could have bought the book, and owned The Americans. But all of those people were crowded into that room because of the cultural hierarchy that places museums and rare prints over mass produced pages.
In and Out of the Museum
New York’s Museum of Modern Art made a serious commitment to photography from the early 1930s, collecting and exhibiting it. But in 1942 it presented a small showcase exhibition titled American Photographs at $10. This is from the press release:
“The Museum’s Department of Photography announces an experimental project: the sale of fine photographs at ten dollars. Nine American photographers have agreed to make special editions of ten duplicate prints expressly for this purpose. The framed prints will be exhibited at the Museum, which will take orders for the duplicate prints. Arrangements have been made by the Museum to have the prints framed at reasonable cost and delivered to the purchasers. The following photographs will be offered: Ansel Adams, Utah Farm, 1941; Berenice Abbott, Miatown, 1933; Walker Evans, Interior, Cape Cod, 1931; Helen Levitt, Tacubaya, Mexico City, 1941; L. Moholy-Nagy, From Radio Tower, Berlin, 1928; Arnold Newman, Violins, 1941; Charles Sheeler, Bucks County Barn, 1915; Brett Weston, Ocean, 1939; Edward Weston, Yosemite Snow, 1938.”
Note the stipulation of ten ‘duplicates’. Editioning, the imposition of fixed limits on the number of prints, would become an important condition of market acceptance, but it had not yet been fully established. In theory, the small show was a promotional gesture to help cultivate a market and support photographers. But there was also an unspoken and perhaps even unconscious subtext there: “Look, see for yourself: the absence of a market for prints has not been an obstacle to the development of highly sophisticated and varied forms of photographic art.”
Three decades on, prints of the images that were presented in that MoMA show could still be purchased for under $100. There seemed to be an acceptance – sometimes grudging, sometimes excited – that the artistic value of photography could have little to do with market value. Moreover, a great deal of modern art photography had grown out of the fields of reportage, science, documentary, fashion, and so on, which offered a kind of economic support that was very different to the art market. This too made it difficult to cultivate a collector base for it, at least at the beginning. Here was a cultural form that by its nature was widespread, demotic, reproductive and somewhat resistant to commodification.
In Europe, one of the pioneering museums with a commitment to photography was the Stedelijk, in Amsterdam. It started acquiring photography in 1958, firstly under the supervision of its library (books again), and then the design department as an ‘applied’ art. Only later was it moved to ‘fine art’. In reality, all museum departments acquire photographs for different but overlapping reasons (the first photograph MoMA accessioned was of a sculpture, and the fact that the photographer was Walker Evans was incidental at that point). When the Stedelijk acquired photographs for its collection from living artists, prints were requested at around 20×16 inches or smaller, so they could be dry-mounted on aluminium sheets and stored in standardised filing cabinets. This was not unlike the way photographs were filed in newspaper headquarters, police departments, and scientific institutions. At the Stedelijk these reference prints would not be exhibited. Instead, when needed for a show they would be re-photographed, allowing for the printing of the image at whatever size was required for the exhibition design. This approach soon changed, under pressure from photographers and the shifting status of the medium. Even so, it is worth bearing in mind this beginning – photographs were understood less as finite material objects and more elastically as pure image potential.
You can probably see where this line of thinking is going. When the desire took hold to cultivate an art market for photography along the lines of the established market for painting and sculpture, it was up against the view that even the very best photography was somehow indifferent to it, or had developed away from it. Certainly, public perception was resistant. While it was willing to accept that photography was an important art, it was more sceptical of the idea that this meant it needed to be a scarce commodity or even a fixed object.
A whole set of criteria for quality and scarcity would have to be developed and implemented by museums, collectors, dealers and willing photographers. These criteria would never be completely self-evident, nor permanent. They would need to be carefully monitored and policed if they were going to function. This vigilance can never cease, as we shall see.
In 1936, Gisèle Freund, a photographer and really the first social historian of the medium, had argued that the artistic status of photography was by that point inseparable from commodification. She had in mind less the status of the print as a saleable item than the status of art in general as commodity. If photography was to become an established art it would do so in a field now thoroughly defined by commercial exchange (and by photographic reproduction). “Photography’s claims to be an art were raised precisely by those who were turning photography into a business,” she argued, slightly too forcefully. At the time she was writing, it was clear that artistically ambitious photography was being made largely outside of the economy and institutions of the art market. There was photographic art, but little market for it as such.
Asked in his later life how he had survived financially as a photographer, Walker Evans replied that there were only four ways to do it:
- get paid to take images and do so with whatever creativity or autonomy you can
- get paid for your images (you make them and then try to sell them, through an agency, for example, or as artworks)
- pursue your photography as a serious hobby while doing something else for a living
- be independently wealthy to begin with (Evans’s example was Alfred Stieglitz).
In other words, beyond the rich and the hobbyists, photographic art happened in the guise of, or within the structures of commercial practices of one kind or another. Evans barely sold a print until the very last years of his life, in the early 1970s. When the opportunity came to sell, he grabbed it. Photographers must survive any way they can. He had never really editioned prints but he signed what he had, and rubber stamps of his name offered further certification. Meanwhile, prints of many of his best-known images, shot for the US government and owned by the state, could be ordered from the Library of Congress for a small sum. He also began shooting Polaroids, using the SX-70 camera. These images were unique, but more importantly for Evans they were quick and casual. Material, but almost as fluid as the spoken word. He’d have loved the iPhone.
By the time Evans died, 1975, art photography no longer had to be pursued in the spaces of, or in guise, of applied commercial work.
As a curator of exhibitions, the most important (and fun) work I can do involves paying attention not to the official canons of photography, but to the image. This means that on the wall of my shows, a consecrated masterwork by Edward Weston, or Laure Albin-Guillot, or Helen Levitt might hang next to a work by an unknown photographer, a commercial poster, a record sleeve, or a screen relaying a work made for the Internet or as an NFT. This is done not to undermine the canons but to suspend them, in order to manifest the deeper affiliations and more rewarding connections that are always there in photography. To be honest, I cannot imagine curating any other way. Even when the emphasis in a show is on physical materiality of the print I prefer to range across the various fields. In a recent show titled Actual Size! Photography at Life Scale, all the images shown were conceived at the same scale as their subject matter, but this still allowed a large and expensive Jeff Wall photograph, printed in an edition of three and on loan from Gagosian Gallery, to hang in the space with a 1930s postcard showing large hailstones at actual size. I had bought it on eBay for $4. The aim was neither to elevate the common postcard nor relegate the Jeff Wall but simply to allow them to be thought in relation to each other, as specific objects but also as choices about how the images take material form. Elsewhere, a grid of repeating photos by Richard Prince hung on the wall next to a video based on the popular Instagram account @insta_repeat, both looking at the same phenomena of photographic conventions and clichés, four decades apart.
Recently, it was a thrill to curate a retrospective of the photographer, painter and filmmaker William Klein, not least because of his maverick attitude to all this. He disliked the idea of ‘vintage prints’, preferring to make large new darkroom prints that hang without glass. Klein’s work for Vogue was shown as contemporary prints but also as a digital slideshow of the original magazine spreads. I don’t really like seeing publications in vitrines, so we made videos of Klein’s now-classic but hard to find photobooks (New York, Rome, Moscow, and Tokyo). This allowed eager visitors to see every page. Sometimes we showed the same image as a rare framed print, on a magazine spread, and as a mural-sized wallpaper print. In his youth, Klein spent a year making abstract photograms in his darkroom but he did not like their small size or their precious uniqueness. He would rephotograph them, allowing him to print them at whatever size he needed, to crop them, flip them, overpaint them and change their contrast levels. (Perhaps it is no surprise that his first major museum exhibition was at the Stedelijk in 1967). Photography can be reimagined and adapted to subsequent technologies and means of presentation. This has always been an important part of its story and its potential.
In the 1960s and early 1970s an art market for photography began to be constructed in earnest. It was an uphill struggle, in the face of perfectly understandable scepticism, and even suspicion. The underlying intuition that the medium is reproductive and even promiscuous in character was never going to go away. The market would need to be in a constant state of alertness – guaranteeing provenances, emphasising rarity, securing edition numbers, all to work around the fact that the photograph itself can guarantee none of this on its own behalf. (To this day, photography still needs talking up in the art marketplace and many of those involved in doing so have the go-getting demeanour of high-end used car salesmen. Those prints ain’t gonna sell themselves.) Moreover, this inevitably complicated status has meant that photography has never been fully absorbed into the fine art market. It remains slightly at a distance from it. This is a good thing.
And yet, and yet. If the photographic art market really craved singularity, it would have made much more of a fetish of those aspects with greater claims to it – the photogram, the Polaroid, prints showing the unique mark of the hand, or even the negative itself. Indeed, the true origin, the holy grail of modern photography was the negative, but negatives are difficult to look at and close to impossible to comprehend or appreciate, or exhibit. (Some photographers shot on positive transparency film, which in the pre-digital era was difficult to print with any subtlety. Knowing this, the photographer Ernst Haas used to sign the carboard mounts of his Kodachrome colour transparencies. Those were what he considered his ‘originals’).
Negatives have largely remained beyond commodity status. They are not really bought and sold on the art market. Instead, if the photographer is deemed significant their archive of negatives might be acquired by an institution dedicated to preserving estates or wishing to monetise them. But if you really crave a sense of ‘aura’ and you wonder what this might be in the field of photography, go look at the negative of that great image you love. You may not be able to make sense of it, but it is the origin, the source. Or at least it is if the photographer didn’t make two identical exposures, which was not uncommon if the subject wasn’t moving too fast.
None of what I have outlined so far is a criticism of the art of photography, nor of the forms it takes. Neither is it a criticism of the market for it. It is a clarifying of the restless, churning, unresolvable relation between them. When I hear complaints that photography has never really been accepted by the art world, I find myself quietly having three responses. First: That is never going to happen, because photography has as much social currency outside of art as in, and the two are always going to affect each other. Second: It is reproductive, so it’s going to be at odds with the market on some level. Third: Be careful what you wish for, because ‘full acceptance’ is usually a sign that something is over. Photography’s unresolved status is the source of its energy, and significance.
The Immaterial Material
Having dwelt upon the negative and the print, let us edge toward the digital present. In the early 1990s, with the Internet still in its infancy, Bill Gates began to buy up many vast archives of historic photographs. Any image has the potential to be reused, and Gates was quick to realise that the Internet would be a, or even the major portal and marketplace. Millions of prints and negatives, including very old glass plate negatives, were digitally scanned. The ‘originals’ were to be stored deep underground. As pure data, the new image files could be monetised via Gates’s licensing company, Corbis. Whoever owned the most images owned the biggest chunk of visual culture, and could even determine history. That’s a lot of power. In his 1995 book The Road Ahead, Gates described the electronic screens he had commissioned for his then-new Seattle home:
“If you’re a guest you’ll be able to call up on screens throughout the house almost any image you like – presidential portraits, reproductions of High Renaissance paintings, pictures of sunsets, airplanes, skiers in the Andes, a rare French stamp, the Beatles in 1965.”
Immaterial but lucrative, reproduction rights to photographs were seen to be more valuable than the objects themselves, but notice what Gates had in his little list there. There is no art photography (unless you like photographs of sunsets). His examples are all from the fields of ‘applied’ photography, in which the image’s primary function is visual information. While there have long been agencies that handle fees for the reproduction of art photography, most living art photographers rarely charge for this. Why? They tend to see reproduction as publicity for the commodity form of the same images, which can be bought in galleries and at auction. By contrast, photojournalists, fashion photographers, travel photographers and the like will nearly always charge since their living is based on payment for reproduction, not payment for prints. This is changing somewhat as the financial floor drops out of the various fields of applied photography and those image makers scramble for a piece of the boutique art market. Nevertheless, the difference is significant and it’s there, consciously or not, in what Gates was boasting about. He owned all those reproduction rights. His scenario in which images are summoned onto screens at the tap of a keyword was certainly a prophecy that came true, although less emphatically for still images than moving ones (streaming platforms, for example). Indeed, a generation on, Gates’s excited commitment to the still image now looks a little quaint.
All of this was taken up in complex ways when photographic artists began to engage with the Internet. While some thought of a website as a shop window for what they were hoping to sell in material form, others (although far fewer) saw the Internet almost as a new medium in itself, with its own specific qualities that could be explored artistically. It is notable that the first published histories and curatorial surveys of Internet Art, which appeared in the early 2000s, valued reflexive practices that somehow drew attention to the functioning of the Internet and websites, as if they really were a medium that needed to be foregrounded and made thinkable. The best that Internet Art could do, it was thought, was to somehow address itself, to highlight and contemplate its own particular parameters. In some ways that was an old-fashioned and strictly modernist mindset, but in other ways it was a recognition that in the context of art, form is always active. It is not a secondary issue, nor a bourgeois distraction from ‘content’.
In general, though, websites have been understood and deployed as platforms, as shop windows, rather than explored as a medium. This has been the same for photography too. While all images have some kind of aesthetic and formal charge, simply because they are images, most are not made with that expressly in mind. And while photography as a medium can address itself, it doesn’t have to.
Something similar can be said of the NFT. It can be a platform or a medium. It’s quite clear that the recently emerging NFT market for photography is dominated by those simply monetising work that could, and often did, exist in material form. At the same time, there are those making photographically-related work that can only function as an NFT, exploring uniquely how NFT’s work. (I’d like to refrain from listing examples as that’s not my goal here). Neither approach is intrinsically more virtuous or artistically progressive. They require consideration on a case-by-case basis.
Hopefully I have by now made it clear how photography has always been fungible in key ways, always amenable to new materials, platforms and contexts. Broadly speaking the adjective ‘fungible’ describes “something such as money or a commodity of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in paying a debt or settling an account; and something that is readily changeable to adapt to new situations.” Interestingly, ‘ready adaptability to new situations’ sounds like it could come straight from one of the art manifestos of the 1920s or 30s. Constructivism, the Bauhaus, or even Surrealism. It also sounds like those interwar cultural critics, such as Bertolt Brecht or Walter Benjamin, describing the malleability of the dominant visual culture, and the need for resistant image makers to stay on their toes. And, one could imagine finding that expression in the archives of the Stedelijk around 1958, as it set out its approach to acquiring photographs as prints to be copied and reproduced for any need.
So, the ‘non’ in ‘non-fungible’ is the gesture to limit that adaptability, to curtail the promiscuous spread of the image in digital form that has become a defining characteristic of the Internet, and indeed of photography. The NFT is proof that it is not materiality that is required of photography in the art marketplace but stability. The photographic NFT takes its place in the long and still unfolding history of imposed stabilizations.
In order to be seen, any image requires what in modernist art-speak used to be called a ‘support’. In the case of a conventional print the support is the paper (and secondarily the frame, the mount, and so forth). An NFT is pure data, existing on a hard drive or distributed across many, and to be visualized it needs a secondary support: printed matter if the NFT is to be printed, or a projector and screen, or a computer screen, or whatever. In the case of printed matter, the support is fixed, unless of course the image gets reprinted another way, but then it is fixed again. As data, if an NFT is to be seen it is dependent upon the quality of whatever technology that makes it visible. A screen-based image is only as good as the screen. That was part of Bill Gate’s gamble back in 1995, and many of the buyers in today’s NFT market were born not much before then. But this is not really a distinction between the ‘analogue’ and the ‘digital’ since there were always analogue forms that required ancillary supports, such as transparencies that need to be projected. Furthermore, even the two-stage process of capture and output means that the relation of the photographic image to its support has always been provisional, never sovereign. Talbot knew that.
As a new market emerges, the talk and public attention is dominated by money, not by artistic merit. This is inevitable, and it can lead to confusion between the two. But photography is still a very, very young thing, and who knows, it may outlive the economic order that produced it and which it in turns upholds in various ways. Photography has never stayed the same for long, either as a technology or as an art, but something persists in its name, otherwise we wouldn’t use it. It could be that ‘photography’ is a placeholder for something, or a set of things, that escape definition or theorisation. The NFT is part of that. If photography didn’t escape definition or theorisation, it probably would have died long ago, like so many other innovations of the nineteenth century.