Why mint an NFT of a photograph? This question has bugged me all year. Even the moniker “NFT Photography” has bothered me – what does that mean? Is that categorization comparable to “Film Photography?” No, at least insofar as many NFT artists are concerned (as they’re minting images that were captured on film). And obviously it isn’t exclusive of “Digital Photography.” The photograph minted as an NFT isn’t produced by or on the blockchain. It merely exists there; it’s commensurate, in my mind, to a physical print. But in that context, it seems prima face insufficient for the aesthetic experience of an image. The physical dimensions of a photograph have always been an inseparable component of the artwork. A Gursky functions very differently in a gallery space than on your phone.
This of course applies to all images viewed digitally, whether in artistic, illustrative, journalistic, or any other context. The device used to view the image is part of the aesthetic experience of the image as object.
This isn’t to say one form is better than the other in absolute terms. Many photographers use books, for example, as a specific way of contextualizing their work (indeed, many photographers work primarily in book form; their work in print, isolated on a gallery work, generally is not nearly as successful), distinct from a physical print, and the size of a book need not mimic the size of the same photographs when printed and framed. They’re different objects, and therefore different things to receive and interpret, despite displaying the same image.
It’s my opinion that the inherent fungibility of display size for digital objects, images, and video is therefore an unavoidable characteristic of the work itself, and that successful digital art is cognizant of this characteristic. I’m thinking here specifically of digital art made after the PC, which automatically assumes that a work will be viewed on multiple screen sizes, although the variation in average screen size in 1981 or 2001 was certainly much lower (orders of magnitude, even) than in 2021.
So, again, what is “NFT Photography?” In truth I think that’s a basically meaningless categorization whose most powerful component is to be a useful hashtag to help pump up the market. It’s done wonders to sell a lot of work. It’s also done wonders to help artists find each other, which is a good thing.
Nonetheless in my opinion that isn’t sufficient, and not very interesting. Far better is to leverage the medium either aesthetically or technologically. Within that approach, the token delineates a substantive difference.
With this in mind, I’ve begun minting my Promenades series as individual NFTs. There will be 128 in all – 32 images, from each of the four original volumes. They will be minted in the same sequence as in the books. The primary difference is that in the books, most images were one half of a diptych (aside from the first and last images of each book), and those diptychs were a key component to the editing and sequencing. With the NFTs, those diptychs no longer exist; the overall sequence is intact, but obviously the tokens can be collected individually and sequenced however the owners wish. This feels like a faint homage to the original Polaroids, made in 2008, all as sketches – the equivalent now to using my phone while walking around a city. It makes them less precious.
I’ve long wanted to re-print the original four Promenades volumes, bound in a single special edition. The original edition sizes, 50 of each book, was too small in retrospect. They are hard to find; I’m not sure I even have a copy of each book anymore.
If enough of the Promenades NFTs sell (I don’t think it would need to be all of them, but probably at least 33%), it should enable me to print a special edition, and then send a copy to each token holder, with a print of the image of their relevant token. If all of the NFTs sell, that likely would make it possible to publish both a special new edition (of 128, each with a print) and a larger new edition, without prints. Since this token-physical link isn’t spelled out in the minting contract, there will need to be a burn-and-swap later on, with a new contract. The functional element of the tokens here is important to me – that they explicitly memorialize the token-physical relationship is to utilize the medium appropriately, and usefully.
Will this work? We’ll see.
Promenades was at first an exercise in editing. For a while I worked with two cameras simultaneously, shooting both 35mm and Polaroids. The 35mm film constituted the “real work;” the Polaroids were offhand sketches (which, thinking back on this now, didn’t make much sense economically – 35mm film was far cheaper per image than Polaroids, which in 2008 I think cost about $2 each). Over time I tended to carry my Polaroid more often than my 35mm, especially at night (the SLR680 is one of the best cameras ever made, capable of focusing in complete darkness due to its sonar autofocus system). Polaroids were a great way of photographing strangers, since you could leave them with a souvenir. The images as physical objects were great to hold, like trading cards, and were also unique, so each one – even the mistakes, and sometimes especially the mistakes – felt like a little treasure.
A box of Polaroids taken in Germany and around Eastern Europe begged to be utilized, but didn’t fit elsewhere. A short simple book seemed an appropriate way to enjoy the images, and was a creative exercise, drawing from a discrete set of images. Cropping and enlarging divorced them from the easy charm of the Polaroid frame and emphasized them as images rather than objects – an important recontextualization to make the book feel cohesive, a singular creative act, rather than a series of cartes de visage.
In editing the sequence, and pairing the diptychs, I noticed many tendencies that I’d previously missed, or that I had maybe tried to smother in my 35mm work. This, I think, is a common problem for young artists, intent on being taken seriously, or wanting to make their work fit a certain mold. Working intuitively, and in turn harnessing that same intuition when editing, is really difficult. It’s part of why many great photographers are hapless editors, and have only achieved their great status courtesy of strong collaborative relationships with talented ones.
My satisfaction with the first volume encouraged me to take on the same exercise with a second volume, drawing from a larger body of Polaroids taken over a few years, primarily in New York City. This body of work is immediately more personal (in contrast to the first volume, which is defined so much by the act of observing from a distance, and briefly), and includes many images of friends, daily surroundings. An intimate inward gaze.
The third and fourth volumes were both edited from images made over the course of the year preceding their publication, and thus the image-making was far more conscientious. This had good and bad outcomes. They contain the strongest individual images – the compositions are generally more deliberate and studied – and many of the best diptychs. But they have less of the intuitive elasticity in the first volume. It’s no coincidence that I bought my first iPhone in 2011, and by 2013 was using it to make photographs and videos in the same sketchbook manner as I’d done with Polaroids a few years earlier. By this point Polaroid had gone out of business and I had exhausted my hoard of original film, which was also becoming very yellowed and faded and difficult to use (the images in volume four are more heavily color-corrected than in the others as a result, are more uniform in palette, and give a softer impression). My use of Polaroids basically came to an end when I completed the fourth book.
The arc of the image sequence tracks several arcs of mine, either directly or inadvertently – travels, relationships, creative process – but is primarily focused on the act of looking. The title Promenades was first a reference to how many of the images were created: during long walks around Berlin, Prague, and other cities. Some of these walks were on routes I took every day. Others were in places I visited once and to which I’ll never return. But the promenade is also a place to be seen publicly, to be an object of observation.
The collection can be found on Foundation.