NFTs at Magnum

I don’t know if it is just me, but I find NFTs really interesting. Towards the end of June, I found in my inbox a message from Magnum Photos announcing that as part of their 75th anniversary celebration, the famous agency would be releasing 75 NFTs for auction. The exclusive chance to own “an original piece of art”, as they put it. A photograph by a famous photographer in the digital realm.

I cannot say that I know a lot about NFTs, but I do know a little. Think of blockchain as digital breadcrumbs leading you back to the original maker, or in this case photographer. A chain of custody, if you like. This in theory guarantees that a particular data-set (the photograph) is authentic and owned by a particular individual.

The best analogy I have heard to describe an NFT is to: “….think of an NFT as a book…. there are thousands of copies, thousands of identical books, but you have the only signed copy”. You have a ‘special’ and ‘unique’ copy of the book, but you have no rights to it, no ability to copy, edit, republish or sell one chapter at a time. You simply own a unique copy, which if you grow tired of it, you can try to resell exactly as it came to you.

But what does this really mean in the Magnum context. Each photographer who sells an NFT sells a digital file with proof of ownership to a successful bidder, who in a sense becomes part of the chain of custody of the photograph, part of the blockchain. There is no physical photograph, only the digital image. There is no right to use the photograph, no rights to license it to a magazine for use in an article for instance, that copyright remains with the photographer and Magnum. The owner cannot even print it.

In reality, the person who successfully acquires a Magnum Photos NFT has the right to look at it on a computer screen and claim ownership. Perhaps there is an option to hang the photograph over the virtual fireplace in the virtual parallel universe populated by the owner’s avatar in Second Life, or There.com? Or, is this just a $1000 screen saver with bragging rights?

Quoting from the Magnum website: “Turning photographs into NFTs generates authenticity and value on the internet, allowing photographers to produce and sell their work online as they would in the real world. For buyers, NFTs present a unique opportunity to actually own an original piece of art or photograph on the internet, as opposed to buying, or downloading a copy.” I note that the Magnum archive is searchable online, as is Getty Images, and countless other photography websites, both public and private. In addition, the individual photographer will often have a website, where images can be viewed.

Listen, I have no issue with Magnum Photos trying to get in on the possibly very lucrative NFT market. Go to it, Magnum, however, given that many of the 75 images ‘dropped’ at the end of June at time of writing are still available for the opening bid of 1.00 ETH (a digital currency equivalent to approx $1000), I wonder if this is indeed something that Magnum thought through.

Let’s have a look at Steve McCurry’s NFT image #51 – ‘Pakistan Border, Afghanistan, 1981’, which sold for the equivalent of about $3000. Were you to purchase a print by Steve McCurry in an edition of one, meaning that you would have the only print of that particular image, what would you pay? Well, it is not an exact science, but, if you look at his limited edition prints on Magnum’s homepage, there is a photograph sold in an edition of 60 in various sizes, which range from about $6000 to $13,500. For the edition in total – buying all the prints – would be the equivalent of being the only person to own the photograph. This would set you back a mere $505,500.

In other words, you can acquire a work by Steve McCurry for your computer screen for $3,000. You can buy one of sixty prints for $6,350 and frame it. Or, you could buy all the prints and be the only person to have it for $505,500.

The print and the NFT are sold with a similar caveat: “This print is for personal usage only, intended for display in the home or other private spaces. For all other uses, such as display in public spaces or institutions, publishing the image online or in print, or any other form of usage, permission must be granted by Magnum Photos.”

In purely commercial terms, NFTs are a new market, another way of skinning the cat for profit. As with all art, the only way to really know if it is worth anything is to look at the resale value. Usually referred to as the secondary market. In other words, what will someone pay for your NFT that you bought for 3 ETH. So far, the secondary market has been very spotty and rather soft. It may evolve, but so far it has not done well.

Who can forget Mr. Sina Estavi, who garnered international attention last March, when he bought an NFT of the first-ever Tweet for approximately $3 million. A year later, he put it up for auction with a reserve price of $48 million, generously offering to donate half to charity, but at the close of the auction, the highest bid was a mere $12,800. If indeed this is the true value set by the secondary market, the value of the world’s first Tweet has dropped a staggering 99.57%.

According to NBC news, quoting sales tracking company DappRadar, global sales of NFTs was approximately $25 billion in 2021, a drop from the $95 billion in 2021. OpenSea – an NFT sale platform said that sales of NFTs peaked in August 2021. The market may yet recover, but it seems Magnum may have been a little late.

As a person who spends a lot of time nursing photographs, it is my view that a photographer’s work has three steps; the composition and making of the photograph; the processing of film or the data file; the final output, which is usually a print. These steps are sacred, they are what the photographer saw in his, or her mind’s eye when clicking the shutter and is executed in full only when the image is presented as intended by the photographer. To me, this cannot be an image on my TV, or computer screen that has been set to my particular palette of colours, contrast, or brightness, or far worse a postage stamp size photo on a not so smart phone.

The jury may be out on NFTs. but, I for one am not buying. I feel sorry for Olivia Arthur, the newly minted President of Magnum. One might wonder, had there not been pressure from the financial backers of Magnum for cash-flow and profit, whether she would have wanted a venture into NFTs as part of her legacy. After all, if after a month a lot of the Magnum NFTs remain unsold, what does that say about the photographers, their work and their credibility. What does it say when Steve McCurry can ‘only’ sell his NFT for about $3000, when being the only one to have one of his prints would set you back about $500,000?

Harbel

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Paris Photo is back

After a hiatus in 2020, Paris Photo 2021 was back this November.  While I should have written about the event sooner, it is perhaps good that I have had time to digest and think about things before writing.

I was able to secure a hotel quite close to the new temporary venue at the south end of the Champ de Mars, where every morning and afternoon I was greeted by an uninterrupted view of the Eiffel Tower before entering and after leaving the exhibition.  This alone made it Paris Photo. 

Atwood, Jane Evelyn – Blind Twins – St Mande school – 1980

I was astounded by the ease with which traffic moved in and out of the venue.  The checking of COVID passes and the checking of tickets and badges was smooth and at least as good as it has ever been at Grand Palais.  Full marks there!

Once inside, the venue looked and felt very permanent.  There was nothing temporary, or cheap about the construction, or materials used to form the exhibition hall.  It was laid out as a giant letter T.  At the top, where one enters, there were rows of booths across, separated by main aisles.  Down the center column of the T there were first a few more gallery booths, and then the various ‘special’ sections and finally the books and a small stage area at the back.  The book section I found was well done.  I did not go to the show during any of the book signings, which may have created some serious bottle necks, but when I was there, the opening afternoon and evening and during the mornings later in the week, it was great.

I had an opportunity to revisit some classic images at the galleries.  There was a prominently centered print of one of my all time favourite works by Chris Killip (Killip sadly passed away in October 2020), among several of his well known works from the North of England in the mid-1970s. Of course there were superb works by several of the usual suspects: Penn, Avedon, Newton, etc., etc., but equally there was new work, and a few new discoveries for me, which is always wonderful.

Killip, Chris – Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside 1976

However, I did want to point out one booth in particular (You know who you are….); It was an exhibition of work by a single photographer (I understand this is one of the things that you get bonus points for when applying to participate in Paris Photo.  Why? I don’t know….).  I bring up this particular booth as it showed a mix of modern Estate Prints that looked to me to be printed on 30cm x 40cm paper and hung along side vintage prints some of which were the same size, some smaller.  The frames and frame sizes were almost identical throughout.  The exterior walls of the booth were predominantly hung with the Estate Prints. I seem to recall, priced around EUR 2000. 

I avoid Estate Prints like the plague.  They have no secondary market value to speak of, and I think they misguide the new and young collectors, who are dropping good money on something without any real chance of ever recovering even a fraction of their investment.  Estate Prints, particularly those that are not limited in terms of numbers are downright scary.  They can of course be nice decorative pieces, but so can posters.

In the case of the booth that I am speaking about at Paris Photo, I found deception in the air.  I think anyone who is new to collecting photography would be tempted by a price-point in the EUR2000s, for a photograph that they might well remember having seen in a book, or magazine.  Of course, the very tempting price point compared to other photographs that were hanging in the main aisles would perhaps have led more than one novice to make a catastrophic mistake.  I don’t think the majority of casual visitors to Paris Photo would know the right questions to ask.

Of course, there are exceptions to my Estate Print rule, such as the work of Diane Arbus, or that of Luigi Ghirri.  The latter because the colours in his vintage work have shifted so badly that they look worse than my 1975 family album in most cases!  In the case of Diane Arbus, the fact that she barely printed any of her work in her lifetime so sadly interrupted, and the fact that her daughter took charge with a master printer has over time proven to be a reasonable way of sharing Diane Arbus’ incredible images.

Perhaps an argument could be made for entry level collectors to have access to work by great photographers, but when you can go into the auction and secondary market and purchase work for under EUR 2000 that is vintage, or at least signed by the photographer in her or his lifetime, it is wholly inappropriate that someone should pick up a modern Estate Print with no real value at an event like Paris Photo.

When you attend an event like Paris Photo, the premier photography event of the year, there is no room for this kind of deception and the booth should not have been allowed to show the Estate Prints in the way they were shown.  It made me, as a collector and a photographer want to go wash my hands, if not have a shower.

I don’t think I saw a single Chinese gallery represented, which I found interesting, but of course given quarantine rules in China and Hong Kong, I completely understand that you cannot attend a show and then go home to endless weeks of quarantine.  Not good for business.

There were likewise several North American galleries that were not in attendance.  This I think was in part due to travel advisories (for instance in Canada) and perhaps common sense on the part of others not willing to take the risk of booking flights, hotels, and crate transport at great cost with the risk of having the whole thing cancelled.  As a result, there were several new galleries that were more ‘local’, some European, several Parisian, and these did their best to fit in and bring interesting work. 

Wood, Tom: Bus Odyssey 1986

Overall, it was great to see old friends and new galleries alike and it was in some ways like stepping back to a time when there were no worries and we could enjoy photography for photography’s sake.

I look forward to next year and again seeing new, old and exciting work. 

On a final note; I would suggest to the organizers that they find a supplier of modular partitions for 2022.  I walked by the event hall on Sunday night with my dog.  Tear down was underway, and there was way too much used drywall, and other single use materials that went straight into dumpsters and no doubt from there to landfill.  In today’s day and age, that is just not good enough.

Harbel

Paul Hoeffler’s Saturday Night at the Roller-Skating Rink

Hoeffler, Paul – Hat and Two Dancers

One of the stories that Paul told was of an evening at a Rochester roller-skating rink.  Paul was at a performance by Erskine Hawkins and his minimalist Tuxedo Junction band.  I have selected a few photographs from that evening below, but first, a word or two from Paul:

“The economics of touring with a 16-piece band forced Erskine Hawkins to bring only 6 musicians, including himself on trumpet and Gloria Lynne, vocalist, to play a dance in Rochester, NY.  The performance was held at a converted rollerskating rink.

Hoeffler, Paul – Lady X

Mr. Hawkins and the players were in good spirits, and supportive of my photographing the event.  The tenor player, Julian Dash, strongly suggested I stay with him on the bandstand, when a ‘friendly shooting’ took place.  A girl was most unhappy that her boyfriend had brought another girl to the dance and brought a gun and fired a couple of rounds – nobody was hurt.

Hoeffler, Paul – Dream Dancing

This was a typical evening at this all-black function.  At many of these events, I was one of the few, maybe the only white person there.  There was no hostility, and many people were interested in what I was photographing.  This is a time that no longer exists.  Like Atget’s images of Paris at the turn of the century, these images are a time capsule, a record of a period in our history and in our culture, which we cannot return to.”

Hoeffler, Paul – Gloria Lynne

What I particularly admire about this photography event is the lack of photographs of the band.  I find it infinitely intriguing that Paul spent most of his time on stage shooting the other way.  Out, out onto the dance floor.  It looks cold, along the walls, people are wearing overcoats.  Must have been freezing.  Those that worked the dance floor look a little more comfortable, for a time.  Gloria Lynne pulling a cigarette from a package, surrounded by paper cups of coffee, perhaps spiked with a bit of whisky to keep warm.  There is a wonderful mood in these photographs, a mood that is almost dreamy.  Paul would often refer to these photographs as the Dream Dancing series.  I got the impression that of all his work, these images rose to the top of his list.  He was proud of these images.  This was not Herman Leonard, or William Claxton.  No cigarette smoke to set the mood. This was something entirely different.  More real, more escapist perhaps, and definitely dreamy…..

Harbel

Collecting Photographs – with Passion!

We all have our own reason for collecting, whatever it is we collect:  Coffee spoons, paintings, fridge magnets, photographs, teddy bears, sculpture.  Collecting is about passion.  Sometimes about obsession.  Remember that.  If it talks to you, then don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t worth having.  Buy with your heart, not for investment.  A rule that I have always lived by.

Killip, Chris – Saw it, felt it – 3 years later, found it and bought it.

I adore this quote:

 “She taught me that I shouldn’t buy a photograph unless it made the hair on my arm stand up.”

– Susie Tompkins Buell, talking about curator Merrily Page

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Harbel

Japanese Post War Photographers

I have spent a lot of time recently looking at Japanese photography from the 1960s through the early 1980s.  There is a great depth of material.  Photographers that are outstanding and so very different from what we are used to seeing in Europe and North America.

I am sure that we can come up with many reasons for this.  The end of WWII.  The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The devastation of a nation.  The loss of a generation.  Famine and malnutrition.  Layer upon layer of pain and suffering.  But the crop of photographers that are now dying out, who were born during or shortly after the war, are sadly not well known outside of Japan.  They did incredible work. 

Often heavy and moody.  Often a little, or even very sad.  Contemplative.  More often than not printed with heavy blacks.  There is a feeling.  An atmosphere that makes me pay attention.  Often saying ‘Japanese’ well before I look at the label.  It is hard to explain.  But, very real.  It is as though the Japanese idea of perfection is there, in terms of skill.  Like a great sushi chef, who spends 10 years making the rice before being let near the fish, or a knife.  Photographers in Japan of the postwar generation are like that to me.  Skilled beyond most anyone, but being Japanese they perfect their skills and then they let a little wabi-sabi in.  A little natural error.  Beauty in imperfection.  This is done with the harder blacks in the printing, the crop, or simply shooting from the hip without even looking, and saving it in the darkroom, as in the case of Moriyama.

I was recently able to view a show by Shin Yanagisawa.  Now in his 80s.  He frequented a particular train station in Japan with obsessive regularity and produced a body of work.  A wonderful book.  And to my good fortune, a small show of vintage prints in a small gallery in Paris.  In the print here, which I admire greatly, he has achieved a feel, a mood and a story to be told by anyone who has ever seen anyone off at a station or airport.  Only 18 x 24 cm in size, the black is deep as the darkest night, and the woman… well, what can I say.  This is a photograph that is universal, yet, so very Japanese.

Shin Yanagisawa – Untitled

In 2001, Shin Yanagisawa said: “…… I have always believed that photographs express something that cannot be captured in words.  If I were able to express myself in words, I would stop working as a photographer.”

The lady on the train needs no title, no story.  This may be the highest form of poetry.

Harbel

Fun with the Moon Landing

I remember when in 1969 – at the age of 7 – I was watching a small black and white screen at friends’ cottage.  A small grainy picture.  I had been playing most of the day and we all gathered for the eventful moment when man – in the person of Neil Armstrong – stepped off the bottom rung and planted his boot on the surface of the moon.  I didn’t speak English at the time, so a quote would not be appropriate here, but I was very much aware of the weird huge white space suits, the oversize motorcycle helmets and the super awkward gloves that looked like they were completely useless at picking up anything.

Over the years, I have had a lot of NASA photographs pass through my hands.  I have kept a few, but mostly, I exchanged them for other things, because, I am not a great believer in the longevity of old colour photographs.  But I digress…. I did keep two.  One that I think proves beyond a reasonable doubt that actually, the moon landing never happened. It was all on a set in the Arizona desert. And to prove my point, when you go to the NASA library and look up this particular image number, it doesn’t exist!

NASA: 5-72-33899

I am only kidding, of course, but the man in the background does prove good fodder for what the conspiracy theorists all say. The wide 70s tie blowing in the wind and his high-waist brown pants and loafers. The hair.  You have to love the hair.  It reminds me a little of my dad’s hair at the time, along with the sexy mustache and the shades.  He wasn’t really supposed to be in the frame.

Of course man landed on the moon, but this particular photograph is all about the simulation, in the heat of the Arizona desert.  Can you imagine just how horrible it must have been?  Unbelievably uncomfortable.  I would imagine great relief among the chosen few, when finally they got on with it and landed on the moon, putting the strange suits to good use.

The second image I kept is usually referred to as the ‘Jumping Salute’.  I will leave it to the official description from NASA:

“Astronaut John W. Young, commander of the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, leaps from the lunar surface as he salutes the United States flag at the Descartes landing site during the first Apollo 16 extravehicular activity. Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot, took this picture……”

NASA: Jumping Salute

Between these two photographs, I think I have found the two most humorous from all the NASA Apollo missions.  Both are great fun, and both should be part of the celebration of what we can achieve as humans, while maintaining a smile on our faces.  Don’t forget, it was all accomplished with the computing power of the average pocket calculator (for those that remember what they looked like).

It has been 50 years since the last time.  Perhaps, it is time to renew the vision of man on the moon. Perhaps, looking back at the only planet we have, we can make sure we start to take climate change seriously!?

Harbel