art photography in digital transition

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If NFTs (non-fungible tokens) had remained in the shadows in recent years, the craze for them reached peaks in just a few months. By guaranteeing the authenticity of digital works, they are also poised to conquer the art photography market.

The sums of money linked to the sales of NFT peaked during the year 2021. In March, the digital work Everydays: The First 5 000 Days was thus sold for the tidy sum of 69.3 million dollars. With this sale, the American artist Beeple – until then unknown to the general public – placed himself directly on the podium of the three most expensive artists in the world during their lifetime, and the auction house Christie’s consecrated the NFTs as integral components of the art market. While it turned out to be intangible, the real object of this sale was not a JPEG file, but rather the title to an image. Today, this attempt to respond to the issue of belonging to digital works of art logically extends to the world of photography.

The uniqueness of NFT

The acronym NFT designates non-fungible tokens, sometimes called “non-fungible tokens” in French. An NFT is a cryptographic token, i.e. a digital identifier that uses blockchain technology. This token is used to authenticate a digital object such as an image, a video or even an audio file, while the blockchain constitutes a distributed database, i.e. a digital register managed by several users and whose role is to list the transactions between these same users. As with cryptocurrencies – such as Bitcoin – it is the use of the blockchain that is the strength of NFTs: its operation ensures unanimous agreement on the content of the data recorded.

However, NFTs differ from cryptocurrencies by their non-fungible nature. A fungible good can be replaced by a good of the same nature, of the same quality and of the same quantity. So, one Bitcoin has the exact same value as another Bitcoin – just like a one euro coin has the same value as another one euro coin. Conversely, NFTs are not interchangeable, because each of them is unique. It is this uniqueness that allows NFTs to blend into the works of art market: even though there are thousands of copies of a digital work, the authenticity of an original version is attested by the NFT which is attached to it. At the risk of complicating things a bit, it should also be noted that NFTs are intrinsically linked to cryptocurrencies, to the extent that the latter – and more particularly the Ether currency – are very often essential to the purchase of the former.

© DR

The grand bazaar of digital creations

With a transaction volume approaching $ 2.5 billion in the first half of 2021, NFTs have grown in popularity so quickly that there are already huge numbers of platforms that allow buying and selling. The variety of digital objects found there is also impressive: still images, music tracks, 3D animations, video performances, animated GIFs, memes of all kinds, video game trading cards, Blockchain domain names … Any category of digital objects with a unique character that can give rise to pecuniary exchanges is thus integrated into the young marketplaces of NFT.

Although modern forms of digital art are currently predominant on these platforms, there are also objects from traditional graphic arts, and therefore photographs. Such works are notably present on websites such as OpenSea, SuperRare, Foundation and KnownOrigin. The latter differ in particular by the size of their community, the percentage they take from sales, as well as their degree of openness regarding the registration of new creators. Thus, OpenSea is for example open to everyone, while SuperRare imposes a principle of curation – to join the platform, a photographer wishing to sell his images must be invited by collectors – supposed to ensure the quality of the works put on sale. And if registering as a collector is relatively easy, note that it often requires having an electronic wallet (a cryptocurrency storage solution) compatible with the Ethereum blockchain.

© Screenshot / NFT Foundation

At present, the most important transaction involving a photographic work seems to concern the image Forever Rose by Irish photographer Kevin Abosch. In 2018, the sale of it – distributed among ten collectors – thus reached the sum of $ 1 million. Supporters of NFTs hail such transactions not only for their astronomical amounts, but also for the opportunity given to artists to generate income from a single work, sale after sale. Indeed, an NFT can include a smart contract, a “smart contract” capable of including clauses such as the establishment of a commission received by the creator of a work on each resale. Thanks to their traceability and smart contracts, NFTs therefore potentially facilitate the ability of photographers to generate regular income by focusing on their artistic work rather than commercial services.

The limits of the craze for NFTs

Despite the secure nature of blockchain technology, the juvenile NFT market is far from being fraud-free. If the follow-up of a creation such as a photograph is ensured as soon as it is put on sale, the act of sale in itself can indeed be carried out by a person who is not at the origin of the ‘artwork. In addition, the French legal framework in which NFTs operate is for the moment extremely vague. In terms of taxation, the NFT of a photograph is thus considered as any crypto-asset, and not as a work of art.

To sell or buy NFTs, it is therefore much better to be comfortable with technical concepts related to cryptocurrencies. One of the main criticisms leveled at these is also valid for NFTs: the environmental impact is substantial. Indeed, the consensus algorithm proof-of-work on which the Ethereum blockchain is currently based requires the constant intervention of many network users, which results in a large energy expenditure.

Moreover, if the defenders of the NFT are rightly delighted with the income generated by certain photographers and artists hitherto anonymous, the regularity of these incomes and their generalization to a wider circle of photographers are not certain. The speculative race that we have been witnessing since the start of 2021 also seems to benefit above all the companies which manage to seize the phenomenon. From an ethical point of view, it seems legitimate to question the creation of a scarcity market to which the digital world was not subject until then. If the long-term impact of NFTs in the art world thus remains uncertain, let us note that their emergence has the merit of raising a paradox inherent in 21st century photography: the contradiction between the reproducibility of the digital image and the uniqueness of the work of art.

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