Danielle Ezzo: Walter Benjamin argued that the development of art from a unique object into a reproducible commodity destroyed its aura. As an artist, how do you reckon with the NFT, which combines digital “uniqueness” with hyper-commodification?
Aaron Huey: How I reckon with the NFT is still an open question for sure, largely because all of my projects relevant to this conversation, though in the works for a year and a half in some cases, only started coming into public view last summer. Most are launching over the coming months. My first NFTs were photographs from the edges of metaverse worlds and leaps from those edges, but I’m not sure they have an aura.
Pairing those photos — taken in virtual worlds with virtual cameras — with a blockchain token, felt like the only path that made sense.
I want a collector to have ownership of my unique image/moment, and I don’t consider the sale of it wrapped in a smart contract to dim any of its light (aura)! The market has definitely figured out how to manufacture and sell digital “uniqueness,” but hyper-commodification feels more characteristic of a PFP project with 10,000 images. The art we are talking about today seems less in danger of that label.
Eman Ali: As an artist, I believe the emergence of NFTs presents an interesting opportunity. They allow me to maintain control over the distribution and ownership of my artwork, while ensuring that it is unique and authentic. This allows me to monetize my work differently than I would have been able to in the traditional art world system. One could argue that the commodification of digital artworks through NFT technology is a step away from the traditional aura of artwork, thereby detracting from its authenticity. But, as an artist, I’m trying to create digital artwork that retains its aura and is part of the NFT market.
Akosua Viktoria Adu-Sanyah: I had a show in Zurich’s old town a few years ago, but there was no means of delivering the pieces by car, so I needed to carry my large-scale experimentally framed photographs in the tram. I had no assistance and was panting and sweating throughout the journey. I was getting trapped in between strollers, tearing the bubble wrap here and there — I’m clumsy sometimes — and in doing so, partially revealed one of my handmade chromogenic prints. I don’t remember if my hysterical laughter at another temporary existential crisis confused the people around me or whether it only took place in my head.
Artists have always known how mundane an object becomes as soon as it’s removed from the sacred realm of the untouchable. The token can be treated as detached from the work and the protected space in which the work is created in the same way that we treat all of the other logistics we’ve built to support, distribute, and preserve it.
Misha de Ridder: Living in the early 20th century, Benjamin thought of art as a physical object — an artifact whose intrinsic uniqueness seemed to be the source of its aesthetic value. This was a bit like worshiping idols. We now know that aesthetic experience does not happen at the object level but in the receiver.
Art does not need unique objects to establish aesthetic value.
When you consider art as a tradeable artifact it is different — scarcity is a factor. But on a technological level there is nothing mystical, it is simply a social contract. You have to believe in art’s value like you believe in the value of a banknote. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be wary of the dangers of this game of economics and art when greed and indeed hyper-commodification come to overshadow the experience. But, generally speaking, crypto is simply a word for the future of the global digital economy. Looking back at 2022, crypto proved to be unsafe, but we now have the chance to purge the scammers and grifters out of crypto. The lesson is: “be ethical.” As for art NFTs, we need further experimentation to understand all the options. I think we have a long and exciting journey ahead.
Mia Forrest: While I can understand Benjamin’s perspective in the context of the early 20th century, we now live in an age where the materiality of the arts is experienced and consumed beyond the tactile realm. To see your reflection in the daguerreotype, to feel the texture of impasto, or the sensation of smooth porcelain certainly yields a different experience to online viewing. But with more digitally native artworks, I think the magnitude of change expands their auric impact.
DE: How does the blockchain stand to change the world of digital photography?
AVAS: The blockchain will become our new encyclopedia, an archival organism integral to the future of education and journalism. Metadata will form part of verifiable tokens with a sophisticated means of accessing, viewing, and interacting with information. A new generation of image-makers will grow up with Web3 as their primary form of Internet, handling advanced AI tools in their day-to-day lives, while developing photographic practices that are generative and language-based. Institutions and estates will prioritize digital provenance, and image restorers will be blockchain experts. I just hope that ArDrive will become such a good dapp (decentralized application) that I can switch over from all my cloud storage systems.
Ioulex: We’re not much concerned with the world of digital photography in particular. Photography hasn’t become digital in an all-encompassing way; the world of photography is bigger than that. While we often take pictures digitally, we certainly don’t identify with digital photography as a niche. Regarding photography in general, the change is positive and productive rather than revolutionary. More work is being seen globally and there’s more debate about its relevance. There’s also more exposure and conversations in which anyone can participate.
When photographers have new ways of being compensated for their work, new types of projects and new kinds of photographers become possible.
MdR: I would ask how the blockchain stands to change the world of photography as a whole. In my opinion, there is no fundamental difference between analog and digital photography, we are dealing with the photographic. This accounts for analog photograms by Moholy-Nagy as well as Thomas Ruff’s software-generated “Zycles,” but it might even extend to surrealist techniques like frottage.
Photography was never physical in the first place, we just didn’t see it as clearly as we do now. NFTs acknowledge this lack of physicality and, in the process, liberate the medium, while the blockchain gives makers more control over their IP. It also makes ownership transparent and easy to verify.
MF: Just as early chemists discovered the ability to fix and preserve the image on plates and paper, today we have technologists to thank for this new horizon in digital photography. Blockchain is akin to the technological and mechanical revolutions we have seen in the past.
History repeats itself — what was formerly printing is now minting.
AH: The blockchain will change everything. It’s a key to decentralized storage; a new stream of income for many creators; a new tool to add utility and layers of interaction to our art; and, perhaps most importantly, it is the best tool we have to prove the authenticity of an image. This is vital in establishing the provenance of photographic news imagery. I say that because I’ve spent the past year working at Stanford’s Starling Lab, researching and teaching new frameworks for data integrity in the fight against mis- and disinformation.
DE: NFTs can be seen to collapse the boundary between commercial and fine art photography. This gives photographers the chance to control their work’s distribution, while also making them responsible for curation, marketing, sales, and aftersales support. Has greater freedom forced you to bear a greater burden as an artist? How has the redistribution of labor brought about by NFTs affected your practice?
MdR: Actually I don’t think NFTs collapse the boundary between commercial and fine art photography. Commercial photography is made with the intention to be sellable, with the photographer thinking of the client first. Fine art photography is made with the intention to convey an idea, concept, story, or whatever the photographer thinks is important, putting themself first.
Both can be sold as NFTs on the same marketplaces, but that doesn’t mean their boundaries collapse.
I think it’s very important that when you mint photographs as NFTs you provide clear context about the project, your intentions, and how the work is to be experienced. Preferably, it will form part of a collection on a custom contract.
AH: I think the line between commercial and fine art was blurred long before the world discovered the NFT. In my case, the independence from agents, brands, and oversight has meant that my practice has slowed down hugely owing to new technical hurdles and my own perfectionism. In truth, thus far it has been a much higher work-to-pay ratio than I am used to. While there are plenty of things that don’t work when relying on a brand like National Geographic for the execution of a project — as I have for the past decade — distribution is definitely not an issue. Coincidentally, they are dipping their toes into Web3 with their genesis drop today, which includes work by Mia, ioulex, and me.
I: This brings to mind all the times our work has been judged as too fine art, too commercial, too specific, too vague. In fact, we haven’t done a lot of commercial work, and we haven’t exhibited extensively, although we’ve had a few small solo shows. We feel most at home with the label of editorial — as opposed to commercial — photography, but we consider our work experimental.
It is very refreshing that in the NFT community none of this matters, and we don’t have to worry about these labels and alliances.
It’s a little disheartening that so much happens on Twitter, but artists don’t really have more to do than they used to. We prefer the image-making process to our other responsibilities, but the history of art is full of successful promoters.
MF: “Every man his own printer and publisher” said Henry Fox Talbot. Even with photography NFTs it is still up to the artist, curator, DAO, or stylistic movement to have a clear artistic and curatorial vision. But the digital age does influence my approach and I’m currently reflecting on experiential formats — creating artwork specifically for NFTs and large-format displays.
EA: In order to be successful in this space, you need to invest time and energy into everything. It may sound ideal to have full control, but it is demanding and can detract from your role as an artist. When I joined the space in October 2021, my daily routine and art practice was disrupted by my excitement for the new opportunity. If you want to move ahead, it is important to take regular breaks and set clear boundaries for yourself to make sure you are taking care of your mental health while still creating new work.
AVAS: I don’t have greater freedom with NFTs. With or without the blockchain, I still have all the responsibility to make a living with my work. Earning an income with NFTs for a while was weird because, on the one hand, it made me think bigger and shaped how I worked on my projects, especially Behold The Ocean. On the other hand, money isn’t enough. Nor is it enough for a token to end up in someone’s wallet who then shares it on Twitter. After a year of being miserable due to all the screen time and Twitter Spaces, I’ve taken a step back to re-evaluate how I want to move forward with the technology.
DE: For many decades the value of photography existed in the unique photographic print or photo book. Even digital photography was regarded as a means to a printed end because its value was derived from the status of the image as an object. Then Web2 created a mass flow of photographic images. What is the value of the individual photograph today?
EA: The value of the individual photograph today is rooted in its ability to capture a moment or idea, to tell a story, or evoke emotion. With the rise of social media and the proliferation of digital photography, it’s easier than ever before to share and distribute photographs. This has increased the importance of creating quality, unique images that stand out from the rest.
The individual photograph still has considerable value, since it is a powerful tool for storytelling and capturing moments of significance.
MF: The physical print of a photograph has historically defined its value. You could hold the photobook, and you could frame the print and hang it in your home or place it in storage to preserve its value. It is interesting that the same terminology exists for photography NFTs — you can transfer it to cold storage in your hard wallet to secure and protect your asset. But does the value really lie in the way the image is captured, preserved, and traded, or does it lie in the artist? Whether or not the technology is physical or digital, I still believe that the value lies in the artist, their practice, their persona, their community, and their provenance.
I: It does seem that the proliferation of images devalues all images and that people have become capable of viewing immense quantities of images remarkably quickly without much reflection — there is so much to sift through! But even in the days before Instagram, photo editors still flipped through leather-bound portfolios in a matter of seconds. Photography has the value we assign it.
MdR: We are living in the golden age of photography. Because of the mass flow of photographic images, many people are now learning how to read photography. Almost everyone has a camera on their phone, and people are engaging with the medium every day, either by making photographs themselves or by looking at them. Ultimately, photography is a language, and the more people master it, the more freedom professional artists have to express themselves on a complex level by asking new questions and telling new stories. I think photography is the medium of our age and should become a compulsory subject in primary school.
DE: The pace of art’s production and distribution has accelerated with the rise of social media. I wonder if that explains the allure of AI tools that generate synthetic imagery in real time. What is your relationship to the current speed of production?
MF: The current speed of production can be detrimental to an artist; we need to always ensure we are taking our time to answer the questions within ourselves. AI tools are a legitimate way to not only expand our creative ideas, but also create art. The integrity of art is determined by the idea, not the medium.
I: The overwhelming speed of production is definitely irritating. There’s so much garbage thrown at us that it sometimes feels like it’s designed to exasperate. At the same time it’s unavoidable, AI tools are so powerful and easily accessible that everyone should try them.
We just have to live with this massive flow of not-so-interesting work, and keep our cool.
From our perspective, we are working more quickly than ever, but we also need to because we have so many distractions keeping us from our work! Sometimes fast work means producing work that’s half-baked, but isn’t that just the same as sharing your process?
MdR: Less is more. In my practice, I take a minimalist approach. I like to slow down. I work on most projects for a year, often alternating between two at a time in order to maintain a clear view of what I’m doing. I am also slowing down technically. I work with the camera on a tripod, taking my time and making few exposures. I even minted something I described as a “slow NFT,” which was actually a one-minute video titled epilog (2022).
Commercial AI has been trained on content optimized by mass media to attract attention, which is then used to produce pictures that will go viral on social media. It’s an ironic cycle. We are primed to be amazed by the outputs of our text prompts. But art should offer a different perspective and an escape from the spectacle. On the other hand, commercial AI can be used for making art, and as a tool with which to investigate image culture and society.
AVAS: The more noise I hear, the more I tune out.
I don’t know how many images we look at every day, but I know there are too many to really see.
The AI production explosion recalls the time when smartphone cameras became so good that you could achieve a consistently high aesthetic — when quantity became the paramount quality. There’s probably a mix of excitement about new technologies and addiction provided by any form of affirming attention. But there is a difference between high intensity and toxicity. I’ve been working on an AI project for almost six months and haven’t shared any images with the public. It’s a heavy body of work that deserves to have its moment. I’m not affected too much by how others work.
AH: I’ve slowed down my use of physical cameras and social media, but I’ve sped up my production of images made with and inside of computer programs. AI does seem to be the greatest accelerant currently, in some cases creating exponentially more images than each creator would normally produce. There is something quite addictive about pulling the lever of an AI tool, which can help to build out whole concepts in a day that would have previously taken months, often with surprising results. This brings with it its own high — a classic dopamine reward system.
For my “Currency of Protest” series, which was based on remixed imagery of protest movements, the speed of creation morphed my images repeatedly into new and evolving stories — like a crystal ball showing me potential futures. In that case, I leaned into the speed as a tool in itself. On the other hand, having ADHD myself, I only know one speed.
DE: The age of NFT photography coincides with the era of nonhuman photography, with the vast majority of images being produced by machines for other machines. How do you see the relationship between human and nonhuman photography developing in the future?
AVAS: Technology has a monopoly on information. But do images have to be seen just because they exist? (Do you have to touch me just because I can be touched?) Why do we compare the human to the machine, and when do we distinguish them? I’m not sure that the relationship between human and nonhuman photography (if we even want to call it that) is all too relevant. I’m more intrigued about what humans and machines will keep hiding from each other.
I: One of the primary fascinations in viewing a photograph is to see from another person’s perspective and learn something about the way they think. This fascination widens as we view generative images and wonder: what is this machine’s perspective?
Usually, thinking about machines isn’t as interesting as thinking about people, but luckily we tend to make machines in our own self-image so that, within all the shiny metal, we can find a mirror.
EA: I think there is a place for both human and nonhuman photography to thrive. I am captivated by the potential of AI technology, both in terms of the opportunities it presents and its limits of creative expression. I’ve been enjoying experimenting with it and am currently working on a project that uses AI as a tool to reimagine the past at a particular point in Oman’s recent history. Having a sound understanding of AI is essential to exploring AI-assisted image creation. But I still believe that it is the human touch, rather than the machine, that makes an ordinary picture extraordinary.
Akosua Viktoria Adu-Sanyah is an internationally exhibited and published German-Ghanaian visual artist and documentary photographer based in Zürich, Switzerland. Her work is frequently awarded for exploring new territories through image-making, research, and human connection. Her practice engages in documentary work and conceptual arts, emphasizing the materiality of photography to reflect on culture and politics.
Eman Ali is an Omani visual artist, living and working between Bahrain and Muscat. Working primarily with photography, text, sound, and installation, Ali’s work intertwines gender and socio-political ideologies to question the intricate Khaleeji culture, societies, and women’s representations. She has integrated her practice as a social critique, observation, and investigation of the multilayered histories of the Gulf, the Arab world, and East Africa. Through her cinematic photographs, Ali reveals the untold norms of our society and invites viewers to reflect on the underlying boundaries and systems that govern our lives.
Mia Forrest is an artist based in Australia, one of 16 selected artists participating in National Geographic’s inaugural NFT collection. She has exhibited worldwide, including at Vellum LA, Tweed Regional Gallery, AVIFF Festival Cannes, Channels International Biennial of Video Art, Queensland Film Festival, and Aesthetica Short Film Festival. Her single-edition NFTs have been acquired by institutional DAOs including World of Women, RAW DAO, and Fellowship. Works from her collections are licensed by StandardVision and sugar.glider for public art displays and prop tech. Her work has been recognized by the Tweed Regional Gallery, Byron Art Prize, Queensland Music Awards, and Australian Photography Awards.
Aaron Huey is a new media artist who has worked across multiple verticals of photographic practice, from traditional National Geographic stories, to photo-based AR and VR, volumetric photography (photogrammetry), and virtual worldbuilding with those photographic objects. Most recently, his work has centered on post-lens photographic practices inside of virtual worlds and with AI collaborations. Huey is a Stanford Starling Lab Fellow, mapping Web3 ecosystems and new frameworks for data integrity in relation to photography and video. He recently launched Couch Surfing with Huey, interviewing artists working at the interaction of ethical technology, and is part of National Geographic’s inaugural NFT collection.
Ioulex (Julia Koteliansky and Alexander Kerr) is a photography artist duo whose portraits, fashion stories, and experimental films have been published internationally. Their gallery work takes various formats — from traditional photographic prints to installations with video, audio, sculptural elements, and occasional olfactory components. Last year, ioulex began exploring the Web3 space, minting a series of NFT collections on the Foundation platform. They live with their daughter in New York.
Misha de Ridder is a visual artist based in Amsterdam who works mainly with photography and video. Since graduating from University of the Arts Utrecht in 1996 he has exhibited globally, including at Foam Photography Museum, ROSEGALLERY Santa Monica, Museum of the City of New York, and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. His work has been acquired by major collections, including Amsterdam City Archives, Foam Photography Museum, Museum Voorlinden, and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. De Ridder has published several monographs, including Dune (2011), Abendsonne (2011) and Falaise (2016).
Danielle Ezzo is an interdisciplinary artist and writer based in Brooklyn. Her practice often begins with photography as an entry point and leans into the slippages between innovation and understanding. Her work has been featured in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and The Tate. Bylines include The New Inquiry, Magnum Photos, Art3, Fellowship Trust, and Camera Obscura. Ezzo graduated from Lesley University College of Art & Design, Boston in 2015 with an MFA in Photography and Integrated Media.