Freddie, an avid collector of photographs in the form of non-fungible tokens (or NFTs), had purchased a photograph for $2,300 in November 2021. Two months later, he sold it for $30, 4 thousand. Welcome to the world of the NFT photography collection, where fine art meets Decentralized Finance (or DeFi) for millennials. Data from ArtPrice and estimates from the Collector Daily website suggest that the NFT photography market grew by $200 million in 2021 — the size of the traditional print photography market. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The art world is undergoing a massive transformation due to a rare confluence of major cultural and technological shifts. First, millennials emerged as adults during an era of massive technological transformation and their successors (Gen Z) are digital natives who spend an increasing percentage of their free time on the internet. Second, millennials and Gen Z have money — in the biggest wealth transfer in history, more than $35 trillion is being passed from baby boomers to younger generations. These conditions are encouraging the collection of digitally native arts, both in the primary and secondary markets. Third, there has been massive growth in cryptocurrency wealth over the past five years, creating a new generation of art buyers. Art photography is at the heart of this confluence of technology immersion, wealth transfer and crypto wealth creation as the NFT photography market not only transforms but grows significantly. Freddie — who, like many in the NFT world, prefers to use a pseudonym rather than his full name — is more optimistic about NFTs than physical photos: I believe society will gradually become more digitized, and as that happens, we will increasingly value our digital lives. As digital-native generations begin to have the funds our parents had and we spend more time in front of screens, we will use the income at our disposal to collect—support art, preserve wealth, and impress our friends online.
Traditional photography was once the “newbie” in the fine arts
NFT photography is a “newbie” looking for a way to enter the photographic market, just as traditional photography sought to include itself in the world of fine art. The photography market has been around for over a century. Initially managed by commercial galleries, such as gallery 291 in New York City, powered by iconic photographer Alfred Steiglitz, the medium began to establish itself within the wider world of fine art. In 1930, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (or MoMA) began collecting photographs. As early as 1940, MoMA created one of the first departments, in an art museum, dedicated to artistic photography. Today, great photographers are part of the broad contemporary art market, which in 2021 was valued at more than $51 billion. The emergence of social media and smartphone cameras has made photography the dominant factor in the visual culture of our time, driving the drastic rise of the traditional market for artistic photography in recent decades. In the 1980s, the five most expensive photographs auctioned at Sotheby’s averaged $98,000. In the 2010s, that amount increased to $2.9 million. At the same time, the number of photographs auctioned more than tripled. Along with advances in digital manipulation software, digital photography has reshaped the artistic practice of most photographers. Artists have more control over their images than when working in a darkroom with negatives and prints.
And here come the NFTs
In November 2021, work #49 in Justin Aversano’s “Twin Flames” collection sold for nearly $3.8 million, making it the fifth most expensive photograph in history. NFTs—proven unique digital assets—are the next big thing and their impact on photography is immense. This is because NFTs solve some complex challenges inherent in the traditional approach to photograph collection. Since photographs are quite reproducible and easily falsifiable with a simple copy/paste function, authenticity and provenance remain an issue. The maturation of blockchains and other Web 3 technologies provides solutions to these challenges — tracking the creation of the work, moving it through the primary and secondary markets, and preserving and increasing its value. This does not mean that there is no possibility of fraud, but it is much easier to verify the authenticity of NFTs than traditional and printed photographs. “NFT photographs are likely to become the main form of distribution and collection of photographs soon, in the same way that digital photographic production has become the dominant mode of photographic production,” he explained. pixelpete, photographer and collector of photos and generative art. This is not to suggest that it will be the only way to collect — just as analogue photographic creation is more solid than ever and continues to produce some of the most sublime images and prints, there will be a robust niche market for printed photograph collection, likely with the provenance support on blockchain. “With NFTs, for the first time, we have the technology that puts photography on the same level as traditional art — it can be a work of art and follow the same rules in the art market,” he said. Sashaku.eth, which collects NFT photos. “I think it will take a while for most people to grasp this, but right now, a photographer has the same chances of making the top-selling art list as any other art form.” New generations are much more comfortable collecting NFT photographs than older collectors. Despite the generational and technological differences between NFT collectors and traditional fine art collectors, there is also continuity in the types of works being acquired. Recently, mega-artists from the traditional world have joined the NFT sector, such as Alec Soth — described by The New Yorker as “without question the most influential photographer of the last 20 years” — who sold his first NFT project on the Assembly platform. NFT photography is migrating to the inherent qualities of fine art photography that have endured for over a century and fueled the market’s massive boom in the early 2000s. “There is a beauty, familiarity and humanity inherent in photography, allowing you to instantly connect to the works at deep levels,” said the collector 0xRainbowadding that NFT photos do not have the same value as other NFTs because these often lack “the elements of rarity that are sought after in PFPs [fotos de perfil] and generative arts. So you see people buying what appeals to them, what they find interesting and what most resonates with them.” Generally, these elements are the artistic quality. “I collect NFT photographs because they fill the emotional void that exists in the world of NFTs,” he said. Jeffexcell. “While you can connect and identify with a specific PFP, marvel at generative art, and be intrigued by ‘play to earn’ or subscription models, nothing in the NFT industry has made me cry except NFT photographs.” Freddie added that NFT photography “is one of the few genres of NFT art where you can already find world-class works on the blockchain.” As the traditional art and crypto art markets converge, the value of NFT photos could increasingly migrate to high quality artworks with a clear provenance, circulation and artistic merit. “I consider NFT photographs to be the oracle network of digital art, as artists are bringing real-world photographic images to the chain. So there’s this common thread through all the works of true human experience being brought into our virtual worlds,” he explained. OffCamber.eth. As more photographers enter the NFT world, collectors are increasingly analyzing artists for the conceptual, technical and formal qualities of their work, the photographer’s importance and critical appeal in the contemporary sector, and the price history of their works. At this point, the history will be much more transparent to all collectors. Since this is an emerging market, there will be ups and downs along the way, but it is likely that early entrants will benefit the most. Most of us weren’t collecting Cindy Sherman’s photographs for $100 in the early 1980s, but now we are here as the greatest artists of the 21st century emerge on the blockchain. *Translated by Daniela Pereira do Nascimento with permission from Decrypt.co.