Published Sep 12, 2021 | Kara Murphy
NFTs – non-fungible tokens – are unique digital assets that live on blockchain technology. They can be music clips, videos, animations, digitized artwork, photos, or even a ticket to an event, such as a movie, that took place at a specific time. What’s notable about NFTs is that they prove ownership.
Blockchain technology was first devised in 1991 by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta. Their purpose was to create a system where document timestamps could exist and not be tampered with in any way. Fast forward to 2008 where a developer (or possibly a group of people) with the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto iterated on the initial concept and utilized the blockchain as a public ledger for Bitcoin cryptocurrency transactions.
What’s notable about NFTs is that they prove ownership
Bitcoin and Ethereum cryptocurrencies that live on a blockchain are fungible – one Bitcoin or one Ether (ETH) can be exchanged for another of identical value. An NFT is non-fungible, meaning it’s unique and cannot be replaced. There are other blockchains supporting different cryptocurrencies that can host NFTs. For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to focus on the Ethereum blockchain where most major digital transactions are taking place.
A single ETH, as of this writing, is worth roughly $3,300 USD. As an artist, you will need to purchase at least a fractional amount of Ether for so-called ‘gas fees‘. This will enable you to cover the costs associated with minting your NFT, which places it on the Ethereum blockchain, and listing it for sale. Digital wallets such as MetaMask streamline this process. You’re required to have a digital wallet in order to connect with NFT marketplaces and authenticate your identity.
If NFTs are digital files, can’t they be downloaded or copied many times over? What is the purpose of buying an individual NFT?
For a collector, the intrinsic value associated with the purchase of an NFT is supporting an artist whose work they admire. When you own an NFT on the blockchain, you have the ability to flip it, or sell it on the secondary market, for profit. The collector won’t be the only one benefitting from this transaction. Because it has a unique identifier, and there’s a record of the work on the blockchain, it’s easy to track.
Importantly, the artist benefits every single time their NFT changes hands. As photographer Trey Ratcliff told DPReview, ‘I get 10% of every subsequent sale until the end of time, so that’s pretty cool! It’s a simple process for the owner of the NFT really. They view the NFT, click sell, put in a price they’ll accept and wait for bids to arrive. If someone meets the price it sells/transfers instantly,’ Ratcliff’s latest collection, ‘Beautiful Cities of the World’ made $250,000 in the first three hours after launch.
If you’ve viewed a recent commercial or print ad for Audi, Apple, or IBM, you’ve probably seen Reuben Wu’s work. The musician and professional photographer is also an ambassador for PhaseOne cameras. ‘Most of my income has come from the commercial side of photography, client-based work. It’s something I’m very grateful for and something I’m very privileged and lucky to get. The reason I’ve been getting these clients is because of personal work.’
‘Personal work sparks inspiration in clients, in agencies, in people to come up with ideas that involve you – and they end up hiring you. It’s self-directed and organic. I’ve been lucky to have a large audience for NFTs. What NFTs have been able to give me is the luxury of time where I’m able to say ‘no’ to more client work, or I can be much more selective and commit the next few months of my time to personal work – there’s less of a risk. It’s rebalanced one part of my business with the other – the client stuff with the personal stuff. Before it was really imbalanced. NFTs are this extra channel, it feels more healthy.’
Cath Simard has made a career of hosting photography workshops around the world. Even with all her success, and large followings across various platforms, she approached the NFT space with genuine curiosity. ‘I’m not a huge tech person, but somehow crypto and crypto art really caught my attention. I love everything that is new and avant-garde and NFTs are exactly that. I started to jump on Clubhouse rooms and got on Twitter, slowly building my knowledge, and making new friends and connections.’
‘What excited me the most about the space was the strong sense of community and building up each other, which frankly, I haven’t felt anywhere else – especially not on Instagram. NFTs have pushed me to take a deeper look inside my work and how I connect with my art, understanding why I create the way that I do.’
The freedom to create what you want, on your own terms is appealing. Cath has been able to also sell 1/1 edition NFTs at top prices by thinking differently.
‘Most NFTs we see right now don’t have the IRL (in real life) aspect and I really wanted to offer something that hasn’t been done before. I do think that this in-person trip paired with the chance to learn photography from me, while getting a new NFT created for the collector during the trip, helps adding overall value and ROI.’ By offering up an in-person workshop experience, including a one-on-one photography lesson, Simard was able to fetch 30 ETH for an individual NFT.
‘NFTs shift the focus back on the art and this is what got me the most excited, to create a real art project that tells a story, my story. I feel that NFTs are a great way for artists to eliminate all social pressures and truly create for themselves while building their own careers according to their rules.’
Anyone claiming that NFTs are a temporary fad hasn’t witnessed some of the recent activity happening beyond Beeple’s historic sale earlier this year. From Bored Ape Yacht Club to CryptoPunks, millions of dollars worth of ETH is exchanging hands, or wallets, on a daily basis. While price floors, or the bare minimum entry cost, are approaching the tens of thousands of dollars for these quirky illustrations, a new trend in the photography world is emerging thanks to Justin Aversanso and Alejandro Cartagena. More than anything, it emphasizes power of storytelling.
According to Reuben Wu, ‘the photography space started slow. When we started out, there seemed to be just one way of doing it – high value 1/1s (editions of one photo). Now there is another path for photographers where it’s more series-based and collection-based – and they’re priced differently. You have the potential for secondary sales and for those sales to continue happening – this helps the creator earn a living from that.’
‘We’ve seen lots of amazing collections come out in recent months,’ Wu continues. ‘Obviously Twin Flames was one of the first ones and then you have Carpoolers by Alejandro Cartagena. Those two have really blazed the trail for this. And now there is a very real way that photographers can earn a living – which isn’t just 1/1s – most photographers aren’t able to get to that level.’
Alejandro Cartagena’s 50 Carpoolers collection of photographs started in 2005. Six years in the making, Cartagena’s ability to locate a distinct vantage point where he could photograph construction workers being transported from the Northern suburbs of his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, to the Southern part, where they worked, is what made his project stand out. ‘My interest was to continue this narrative of how big cities have unintended consequences because of the expansion coupled with the lack of support.
Minting these images was a natural progression. ‘People have known about this project through the Internet more than through exhibitions or books where I have published versions of the project.’ All images in the collection have sold, and many are listed on the secondary market.
Cartagena’s latest collection, images recovered from Mexico City’s dumpsters, and subsequently restored, is listed on OpenSea – a top marketplace offering low-cost and flexible minting options. Its rapid growth over the past few months is a strong indicator of where the NFT market is headed.
NFTs can be thought of as the future of art collecting. You can display your collection in virtual galleries and allow anyone online to view it. Curators have identified emerging talent and given them a new audience.
Karene Baptiste, whose imagery depicting personal family tales has attracted top collectors, explains why she started minting NFTs. ‘I got into the space thanks to Diana Sinclair who is a member of Black Women Photographers like I am. She was talking about how there was room for women in the crypto art space and sold me on the possibilities that existed there.’
We’re still in the beginning phases when it comes to discovering what’s possible with NFTs. While photographers have been finding success in the space, Trey Ratcliff warns that ‘it seems pretty hit or miss. I do recommend trying it on a few marketplaces just to see how it works.’
Another concern, that shouldn’t be overlooked, is the environmental impact in terms of carbon dioxide emissions associated with the creation – or ‘mining’ – of cryptocurrency. Photographer Tracy Lee uses Nori, a solution that offsets the environmental impact of selling NFTs. Nori allows you to directly purchase the carbon removals that farmers take out of the atmosphere and store in their farm’s soil.
It’s a solution worth examining as more artists continue to enter the space, looking for new ways to tap into their creativity and gain more financial freedom. ‘I think the NFT photography space is one of the most important things for photography in the last 30 years,’ Alejandro Cartagena explains. The ability to sell directly to a buyer, without an intermediary, gives artists true power.
It extends beyond photography too. Noel Thomas, who regularly contributes to YouTube’s Nature Relaxation Films channel, says ‘after researching it, I realized this could be a pivotal moment to get in a new, emerging community and market for art. The thing that attracted me was the connection to the blockchain and its authenticity. I create videos so this is something I can relate to and now I’m thinking of how it could evolve, in the future, to include other art forms or trade.’
The metaverse, consisting of virtual galleries and worlds, is where we’re going to ultimately be spending more time. ‘I can see a lot of artists and collectors from the physical world moving into the NFT space as well, considering that probably fewer than 1% have even ever heard about NFTs. They are the future,’ adds Cath Simard.