Before talking to Australian photographic artist, George Byrne and looking into various NFT platforms empowering creators, I admit I was an NFT skeptic. The truth of it is, NFTs are dramatically remodelling art and offering a unique future where artists are no longer stereotyped as ‘struggling’ or ‘starving’.
Since the meteoric rise of NFTs, friends, family and randoms have asked me whether or not I’d be entering this digital space with my photographs. “You should get into NFTs,” he said. “NFTs are the future,” she said. “NFTS, NFTs, NFTS,” they chanted. Okay, they didn’t say it like that, but that’s all I heard and all I thought was WTF are NFTs? I could never really come to terms with Bitcoin or Ethereum or any of these other blockchain buzzwords. And I’ve always favoured physical prints over JPEGs. So, selling photographs, or minting them, on this invisible blockchain thing seemed heedless.
Like any millennial, I thought it best to do some research on the matter – the results of which follow. What I know now is that the NFT space is an ever-evolving beast. It’s just beginning. It has a long way to go. But its use of blockchain technology has come an even longer way and has the potential to dramatically shift the transactional nature of art in favour of the artist. I am excited to watch it unfold.
In this article, we’re going to dive into some of the most important things, like how exactly NFTs are benefiting artists and influencing contemporary photography and the art world in general. We’re also going to hear from photographic artist George Byrne and how his use of NFTs exist as a digital extension of his traditional practice.
But before we do, let’s quickly look at what NFTs are and how they work. Who knew three capital letters could mean so much? Instead of me trying to explain the difference between mining and minting, I’ll break it down in layman’s terms, and then provide you with a bunch of resources for further reading.
“A lot of artists see this as an incredible opportunity to get into making their passion their main gig.”
What does NFT stand for?
NFT stands for non-fungible token.
What is fungible? If something is fungible it can be replaced with another identical item. I can swap my $5 note with yours because they’re the same thing, they’re fungible.
So, non-fungible means it’s irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind, unique. Like the holographic Charizard Pokemon card I sold when I was nine years old for $20 AUD (now worth close to $3,000 AUD) – that was non-fungible.
Continue reading about NFTs with this broad overview.
Why mint an NFT?
This question is the crux of this article and the answer is simple: Because the secure, contractual nature of NFTs benefit artists greatly, ensuring they can receive a percentage of future resales.
In my initial efforts to debunk the hysteria surrounding NFTs, the words ‘secure’ and ‘ownership’ continually appeared in conversation. Though you may think you can screenshot Beeple’s ‘5,000 Days’ artwork (which you can totally do… to anything on the Internet), the encryption process and record maintained on the blockchain ensures that only one person can actually own the artwork.
Security & Transparency:
It’s secure. It’s transparent. According to an article written by Mieke Marple for Artsy, NFTs have the ‘… ability to function as contract, contract executioner and record keeper…’ What this means is that artists have power here. Marple continues, “NFT sales are helping to bring autonomy and income back into the hands of visual artists.”
Sure, you get paid if you sell a piece in the art world. But if the collector decides to resell the piece, it is extremely unlikely that you will ever receive a percentage of the resale value. This is not the case with NFTs where you can receive a percentage of future resales.
If your photograph of a cat stretched out in the sun sells for $500 and then two weeks later you’ve gone viral and the work sells for $50M, as the creator of the now incredibly valuable artwork, wouldn’t it be nice to be compensated.
Why George Byrne Uses NFTs
My confusion around NFTs, particularly in a photography context, has always surrounded the value placed on the digital version versus a framed print. I’m someone who prefers to hang a physical artwork in my house rather than store an NFT in my digital wallet. But more often, I’m seeing artists and platforms offering both the digital and physical versions of the artwork.
I thought it’d be a good idea to talk to fellow Australian, George Byrne – a practising artist and frequent exhibitor of real prints in real frames on real walls, as well as a recent experimenter in the NFT space, selling NFTs alongside physical reproductions.
Byrne’s first NFT, Blue Awning With Yellow, was an animation collaboration with @bran_cuzi. As someone who follows a traditional photographic practice, I was interested to see Byrne mint this infinite digital loop and curious to know why he branched out into the digital realm.
“It’s something I’ve been experimenting with just for fun over the last 3 or 4 years,” Byrne says. “My work was increasingly becoming fabricated… and collagic, and I figured, if I’m already augmenting the real world, then wouldn’t it be an interesting step to collaborate with someone who can animate.”
Byrne did just that and remains excited by the future of NFTs. “It’s a very democratising prospect, but probably quite beguiling for artists who’ve spent years establishing their practice and are now starting at the bottom of the rung, or at least on the same rung as everyone else.”
This ‘fair-game’, egalitarian mentality is inherently reciprocated in NFT technology and informs Byrne’s great curiosity with the space. “The issue with painting and photography is proving provenance and this technology provides such an airtight way to do that,” he says. “There’s a good chance that if blockchain technology stays strong and secure then that will become part of all artwork provenance, so that any artwork you sell is linked to blockchain somehow – linked to the physical artwork.” This notion was also posited by Marple where she stated that NFTs can perhaps exist beyond the digital novelty and act as a contractual counterpart to the physical artwork.
“It’s a very democratising prospect, but probably quite beguiling for artists who’ve spent years establishing their practice.”
NFTs & Photography
There is extraordinary growth potential in this digital space and opportunity to amalgamate traditional photography on NFT platforms. Though the photography NFT relationship is in its infancy, there are numerous platforms out there born from the passion of helping artists.
The recent launch of ART3.io and other photography specific NFT platforms presents an exciting time in the medium’s history. ART3.io is brought to you by 1854 and British Journal of Photography (BJP), the world’s oldest photography title, “leveraging 167 years of heritage to bring the best of contemporary photography to the metaverse”. See the catalogue of items for sale made available through the NFT platform, OpenSea.
Other platforms such as Voice and SuperRare are also making waves. As described on their platform, SuperRare is “Pioneering art market royalties… with artists receiving continuous royalties for all secondary sales on their artworks – forever.” This feature is truly unique, giving artists the opportunity to develop sustainable arts practices.
Another platform entering the NFT space with the same ambition of supporting artists is Urth Art. Urth’s exciting foray into the metaverse involves merging the new art world of NFTs with the traditional art world of limited edition gallery-grade prints and fine art photography curation, and to do it in a way that gives collectors and artists the best of both worlds. As Urth co-founder, Christian Gibson explains, “We’re giving our artists a greater commission on sales than traditional galleries. Urth Art artists take 80% commission, where it’s not uncommon with traditional galleries for artists to take only 50%. As the platform grows and moves towards being fully decentralised our goal is to further reduce our commission. All Urth Art NFTs come with a 10% royalty built-in, so after the initial sale, artists will receive a 10% royalty payment on any secondary sales of their artwork.”
Much like Byrne, Urth Art will be offering digital NFTs as well as physical prints. “As cool as it is to hold a verifiably authentic and scarce NFT in your crypto wallet, there is still something beautiful about a physical artwork hanging on your wall to be enjoyed in real life,” Christian says. “As a platform we want to help artists create meaningful art in the physical and digital world, and this is our first step in that direction.”
The Environmental Impacts
NFTs offer exciting benefits for artists in photography, fine art, music and beyond. But there’s one aspect of NFTs that should be taken into account before diving into the space – their environmental impact. Most NFTs live on the Ethereum network, which currently creates about 83kg of CO2 per transaction. This figure is likely to grow as more people use Ethereum. Ethereum is working on transitioning from a “proof of work” system to a “proof of stake” system, which will cut carbon emissions by over 99%, but until that happens, NFTs are causing damage to the environment.
Some artists, like Beeple, plan to purchase carbon credits so that the net impact of their art is positive. And some platforms, like Urth Art, are taking similar steps to mitigate these negative impacts. “We have built into the contract of sale that 10 trees are planted when someone buys an Urth Art NFT, and every time that NFT sells afterward,” Christian says. “According to our tree planting partner Eden Reforestation Projects, those 10 trees sequester approximately 3075kg of CO2 over a 25-year period, so in time there will be a net positive environmental impact with every Urth Art NFT sold.”
Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, things are moving and shaking in NFT land. “A lot of artists, or creatives, who may not have had a full-time existence in the conventional art world, now have time and space and see this as an incredible opportunity to get into making their passion their main gig,” Byrne claims.
I must admit, I’ve come a long way since I began writing this article. I’m not an expert by any means, in fact, I only know a tiny bit more about NFTs than I did after hours and hours of research. But I really value the bidding transparency, the protection offered through the blockchain technology and the artist’s ability to receive a percentage of future resales. These factors significantly benefit artists and I’m eager to see how the entire space evolves over the coming years and how this period is referred to in art history.