Since late last month, April 25 in fact, I have been periodically researching the topic of NFTs or “nonfungible tokens“. The damn things were back in the news yesterday when a digital-only photograph of supermodel Emily Ratajkowski standing in front of a photograph of herself with a smaller, different photograph of herself in the corner sold at auction at Christie’s for $140,000 ($175,000 after fees). Here’s Yahoo!’s description:
“It’s not that the photo can be seen only by the buyer or even that the buyer can physically mount it in a frame (though one supposes the buyer could project it on a wall or screen and put a frame around the projection); it’s that the equivalent of the certificate verifying the authenticity of the digital file of the main photo is unique. It’s really the certificate that cannot be replaced exactly by a copy….NFTs have recently enjoyed a heyday. Nonfungible.com, which tracks such sales, shows massive spikes through the first quarter of 2021 over the last quarter of 2020, with sales volume reportedly in the range of $2 billion already this year.“
Right. I can read that over and over, and it still makes no sense. As far as I can tell, these are like digital tulip bulbs from the Dutch tulip craze crossed with cyber-currency, and people who have so much money they don’t know what to do with it are buying what amounts to metadata as investments. But I may be completely wrong. I eventually gave up on trying to understand NFTs when my sock drawer started looking taking to me.
There is are underlying ethics issues, however. Ratajkowski created her NFT in part to troll Richard Prince, a photographer who has exploited the blurry ethics and copyright laws involving photography to make a lot of money and to infuriate many people, especially celebrities like Ratajkowski. Prince is the master of the digital age of Appropriation Art. When Andy Warhol essentially copied the design of a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and made millions from it, that was the beginning of the trail of metaphorical bread crumbs that led to Prince. Thousands of photographs are placed online every day and appear all over the web, to be copied and re-used in on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and many other cyber-spaces. It is often impossible to track down the original photograph or its source even if one wants to give it attribution or ask permission to use it from the creator—this is something I do know something about, as I deal with it every day. Taking an individual’s image, however, treating it as one’s own and selling it is widely regarded a breach of photography ethics, and arguably a breach of law. “Fine Art,” however, creates a large loophole, and in the loophole dwells the much despised Richard Prince.