The claim is that NFTs got rid of access control in photography. Anyone can grab a camera, hit some NFTs and make some money. But what does that actually mean?
I think for this argument to work, we have to do three things. We need to define what access control is, how it traditionally applies to photography (in this case, specifically fine art photography), and then see how it works with NFTs.
Access control is one of those buzzwords that keeps coming up, and everyone hates it. It might not be so bad, though. Access control is preventing access to benefits (in this context, career-related benefits). It’s probably best if I explain this with an example.
If you want to be a thoracic surgeon, you can’t wake up tomorrow and be one. There are guards. There are several levels of education, which are closed; you have to do well in high school to get into university and then into medical school. At each stage there are gatekeepers who make sure you meet a certain level of knowledge, usually through testing. Once you get your degrees and certificates and go through the education system, you will need to do residencies where you will learn on the job until you progress in your career. Again, there will be guards along the way.
Flipping this example around, if you’re going to have open-heart surgery tomorrow (for whatever reason), you’ll probably want to make sure you have a surgeon who’s done all the right steps, which have been kept along the way. .
Access control in art
With fine art photography, it works a little differently. You don’t have to go to school or university to study photography to become a photographer (at least not in Australia). But realistically, there are still career gatekeepers, such as critics, curators and gallerists.
So you could show in small local galleries first. From there, you could leverage your work in larger state or even national galleries. Finally, if you go far enough, you can show your work in bigger international galleries.
To reiterate, smaller galleries can be state or city ones that show local artists. They may have gallery space but not a huge budget to pay you to produce work or even enough to pay artist fees. These may have open calls or programs scheduled a year in advance. An average gallery may have noted national artists but not really the budget to show the work of international designers. These might have fewer open calls to show work, or might be more competitive, or might do more invite-only hosted shows. Generally, these are scheduled one to two years in advance. And then the biggest galleries and museums could show the very big names both local and foreign – for example, works that could be valued in the millions of dollars. These usually have invitation-only programming and are held several years in advance.
You kind of have to show in the smaller venues to start showing in the bigger and bigger venues. The way to get noticed is to have very original work and a unique point of view, but also to be persistent. You won’t really meet the biggest curators and such until you’ve been shooting for a while and they’ve kind of seen your career progress.
NFT and access control
It’s a bit like the essence of access control. I’m not saying it’s good or bad; I think it’s more about how it’s implemented.
The fact is that NFTs promise democratization; it’s democratic — anyone can join. There are extremely impressive success stories of people earning a lot of money on these platforms. But then you have to ask yourself: for every success story, how many more are there that don’t get the same recognition?
And while the traditional art system of exhibiting in larger and larger galleries at least has the controls in place so that the people who control access at least have a system to do so (there is a history of the photography to browse and research that spans over 200 years and a line of art history that spans much longer than that), NFTs aren’t really the same. That is, with NFTs, because anyone can do it, people there don’t necessarily have the same kind of education uniformity. Someone who is a collector can collect more randomly than get work, which has a kind of artistic value.
I guess in real terms there are so many things like that. How do you sell another lovely landscape photograph just like the other 50 landscape photographs?
It’s great to be disruptive and try new things. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. But if everyone is disrupting by making the same images, then maybe having a curation system isn’t so bad? At least I know I can walk into the local galleries in town and be moved or feel something because I know there will be some level of originality or quality that has been curated.
Image credits: View of the installation, “Portraiture en noir et blanc”, Galerie de l’hôtel de ville, 2022. Ali Choudhry’s work is illustrated. [Photography by (ImagePlay)]