NFTs: An Open Minded, and Curious Series of Observations

I don’t think that NFTs have anything to do with photography, they may be used by photographers to sell their work, but that’s different. What they do seem to be about is commerce, a need for community and validation.

Let me explain. I have spent the past few months observing the NFT phenomenon on Twitter, in forums (which I have had to join) and through the art marketplace. I have used my journalist training to try and understand the people behind and within the NFT community. I have not focused on the ecological impact of NFTs or the economic reality of their financial frailties. Others have done that much better than I could.

I am interested in people, it’s why I am a photographer, and why I do what I do.

I may be seen as old (57), and disconnected by many within the NFT community, but what age brings is experience, and most importantly first hand knowledge of previous fads, trends, booms and busts. As a teenager I read the great JK Galbraith’s book on the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and the morals of the tales he outlines within that book have stayed with me throughout my life. Greed is not good, whatever Gordon Gecko may have proclaimed.

It is difficult to find out about the people behind NFTs on Twitter or in forums as they primarily exist behind a series of cartoon based avatars, and pseudonyms that appear to have been created through a Frankinstein approach to syntax and grammar. Most end with the declaration of .Eth. A proud assertion based on currency.

The cartoon avatars apparently have collector significance with different animals indicating the prowess of the collectors ability to spend and hoard digital files. This to me has a sense of Dungeons and Dragons about it, but as I have never played either game I do not know if this is true.

I use the word game at this point as there does seem to be a sense of game playing in the NFT universe.

The collecting of images, reselling of those images and the recognition by fellow collectors of your prowess as a collector reminds me of the baseball or football card collectors who spend vast amounts on the rarest card based on desire within their community to own the Holy Grail, whilst the rest of the world looks on incredulous. Are NFTs a Top Trumps for the digital age?

This sense of game playing is further strengthened by the visual assault that greets you on the forums. Disposing with any form of information architecture they are as difficult to traverse as every aspect of the NFTs world is, and filled with just as much affirmative shouting as the NFT social media accounts. An NFT dictionary is required to understand many of the terms being used as acronyms abound and terms of reference are loosely used without context or explanation. Is this a deliberate approach to promote a sense of needing to be on the inside to understand what is going on? Is it a deliberate use of smoke and mirrors to create a sense of something happening that is actually much shallower than it wants to appear? I don’t know, but what I do know is that effective communication is based on simple language and clearly defined concepts. The NFT appears to be working on a very different basis.

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that experience of previous trends and fashions can be useful when meeting and greeting the latest movement. I was in London at the birth of Punk and New Wave at the perfect age to embrace the music, ideas and zines that promoted a new way, a new way of thinking and communicating. I saw its impact on the mainstream and how it was swallowed up by consumerism. It’s ideals where always about making money in one way or another, even if that was in a more naive time.

With the explosion of the dot com boom in the late 190s and early 2000s I found myself for a brief moment employed as the creative director of a venture capitalist funded online publishing initiative that was going to change the world. It didn’t, and lots of money was spent and lost. The desire to make money was clear, front and centre, but those with the money and the dream were just as naive as the punks who wanted to overthrow the system.

The NFT universe reminds me of both of these moments in different ways.

During a time of global pandemic the need for personal security, financial security, a sense of community and the need to be ‘heard’ has never been stronger, and the excitement surrounding NFTs promises all of these returns. Alienation from the art world has left people feeling that they need to take control just as the punks wanted to overtake the record labels, and the VCs wanted to become publishers.

So far in 2021, Gallup states that 56% of Americans own stock, based on polls conducted in April and July. This is similar to the average 55% recorded in both 2019 and 2020, and the average of 55% Gallup has measured since 2009. I think this is relevant to the NFT boom.

The NFT community appears to be largely US based or at least US powered, a country that is perfectly at home with the idea of buying and selling imaginary items, with prices that fluctuate daily, based on belief, and a perceived understanding of the global markets. This is not the case in the UK and it is not at the same level of engagement globally.

Speaking of stocks and shares, you may at this point consider the danger of pyramid schemes, a profit based allegation that I have seen used concerning NFTs. These are illegal in many countries (including in the US and UK), but I think it is worth considering what the definition of a pyramid schemes is. Simply, it is a business model that recruits members via a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme, rather than supplying investments or sale of products. As recruiting multiplies, recruiting becomes impossible, and most members are unable to profit; as such, pyramid schemes are unsustainable.

I am not suggesting that NFTs are a pyramid scheme, but there are some interesting similarities that I have observed.

I have seen a few photographers proclaiming that they have sold their work as NFTs, and I am aware of others who claim to have made big sales, but I have seen many more responding to these announcements stating that they have yet to make a sale. They are hopeful of future sales, because they have invested physically, financially and spiritually into the scheme based on a promise that they believe is being delivered to others. As more people join the NFT scheme the market becomes saturated, and either starts eating itself by those making having to also become those collecting or the lack of return on investment becomes the reason to leave the scheme all together.

Those who are at the centre of the community are selling hard and marketing harder. Constantly Tweeting and encouraging investment in their digital product.

Again, experience and age allows me too recognise the return of the phrase ‘digital art’ a description of much NFT work rather than photography. The first moment creatives were given digital tools and the Adobe Creative Suite the desire to create images digitally was too hard to resist. This soon developed into advanced digital image creation and manipulation both mainstays in film-making and advertising image making. Now the praise has returned within the NFT context, but from my experience with a few exceptions without the sophistication and imagination of those plying their digital trade within a professional environment.

I asked this question on Twitter “If you have bought an NFT please tell me why and what you intend to do with it. Serious question.” These are a few of the two answers I received:

“I bought lots of affordable NFTs in tezos blockchain. I plan to print some for my desk. Some of it I consider like Patreon with extra benefit.”

“I’ve bought some, I’m on the #tezos blockchain, some photographs were beautiful, it could help the photographers to grow, it’s not expensive on tezos, and most of all there is no people/curators between the photographer and the audience, this is why I buy NFT photography.”

“We bought a few and I run a photobook store here in Indonesia. I only bought what I can afford though, all under $5-6, and to be honest not all photography. What’s our plan with it? Currently only collecting it and to support our local artist.”

What is interesting to me about these responses is that these collectors could have purchased prints direct from the photographer and supported photographers by doing so, or through a Patreon page if the photographer had one. They did not have to buy NFTs to achieve their desired aims. I asked some more questions and this is one of the responses:

“I bought the series (6 images) total for 0.6 tez (2.5 USD), 2 months ago. The guy only made 2.5 tez (10 USD) for each of the image and 10% royalty if it get sold in 2nd market.”

So, photographers making $10 (£7.50) on a sale for an NFT. Not quite the big bucks being suggested. We all know that every pyramid has a top and a much wider base.

The photographers who responded to my question were polite and had photographs of themselves as their avatars. Perhaps the NFT world is split into two communities. One that is providing the hype and the noise, aggressive and in-your-face (I have been called clueless and an a**hole by two of these) and another that sees the NFT world as an interesting area to spend a few dollars on.

It is also interesting how often the issue of gatekeepers is raised by those promoting NFTs. The direct nature of sales is seen as a specific benefit and yet traditional gatekeepers such as Magnum, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and The British Journal of Photography are already part of the NFT marketplace, with many using their involvement as validation of the form.

Further insight into the buying and selling of NFTs was provided by another NFT collector who said this:

“I think every NFTs website are getting money on sales, I’m a web developer too, if I make a website promoting artists I will ask for a commission. Like a gallery getting a commission when a photographer is selling a print.”

This is a business, it is not about photography. It is about selling images that may have been created photographically and some may not. It is not the future for photography it is another possible commercial opportunity. Some want to be market traders, brash, loud and happy to make a few quid whatever the quality of the product, and others see themselves as a new generation of art dealers, curating and presenting work for the serious collector.

Both are reliant on the photographer or creative image maker for their commission, their cut! The commoditisation of art is nothing new, buying work directly from the creator is not new, acting as a patron of the arts is not new.

New practices concerning contracts, copyright and resales may come from the NFT boom but I will not hold my breath. I will however, remain open minded. An observer rather than a participator. Photographers I know and respect have dipped their toe into the market, and I am interested to see how they progress, and to hear their experiences. Other photographers I know have become evangelical about the NFT. I wait to see how long their enthusiasm lasts.

From the outside the NFT world I have experienced looks like a cult, and most cults end badly. From the inside it looks fragmented. That fragmentation may be its salvation or its achilles heel. My observations will continue, but my investigation will not. I have found the world of NFTs to be confusing, time consuming and ultimately shallow. That’s my experience and opinion today and I may change my mind. If you agree that’s fine, if what I have written has bought some clarity to your NFT view I am pleased, but if you disagree with everything I have observed that’s okay also.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021

1 comment

  1. After a disappointing few weeks of watching many photo people fall into the NTF hype it’s a relief to see someone approach the craze with eyes and mind open.

    The thing I can’t get past (aside from the environmental disaster) is how many NFTs are stolen art. It’s so common that DeviantArt recently developed an AI bot to notify users when their work appears to have been stolen and sold as an NTF.

    Given that copyright and proof of ownership is a cornerstone of the pro-blockchain argument, I fail to see how NFTs live up to a single promise that the hype has made.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an NFT of the Brooklyn Bridge to sell someone.

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