Claims that NFTs get rid of the gates in photography. Anyone can pick up a camera, mint some NFTs, and earn money. But what does this actually mean?
I think for this argument to work we need to do three things. We need to define what gatekeeping is, how it has traditionally been applied to photography (in this case, art photography in particular), and then see how it works with NFTs.
Gatekeeping is one of those buzzwords that keeps popping up and everyone hates it. Things might be fine, though. Gatekeeping is preventing access to benefits (in this case, occupation-related benefits). It might be better if I explain this with an example.
If you want to be a thoracic surgeon, you can’t wake up tomorrow and be a thoracic surgeon. There are gatekeepers. There are several levels of education, all gated; you have to do well in high school to get into college and then into medical school. At every step along the way, there are gatekeepers to make sure you meet a certain standard of knowledge, usually by passing a test. Once you pass your degrees and certificates and pass the education system, you must study on the job until you progress in your career. Again, there will be gatekeepers along the way.
By flipping this example, if you need open-heart surgery tomorrow (for whatever reason), you may want to make sure the surgeon you get has done all the right steps, which have been kept out of the way.
gatekeeping in art
For art photography, it works a little differently. You don’t need to go to school or university to study photography to become a photographer (at least not in Australia). But in reality, there are still professional gatekeepers, such as critics, curators, gallery owners.
So you might show at smaller local galleries first. From here, you can use your work in larger state or even national galleries. Finally, if you go far enough, you might show your work in larger international galleries.
To reiterate, a smaller gallery might be a state or city gallery showcasing local artists. They may have a gallery space, but don’t have a huge budget to pay for your work, not even enough to pay the artist. These may have open calls or programming scheduled a year in advance. A mid-sized gallery might have noticed domestic artists, but didn’t have the budget to showcase the work of international creatives. These may have fewer open calls to showcase work, or may be more competitive, or may be more curated shows by invitation only. Typically, these are programmed one to two years in advance. Then, the biggest galleries and museums are likely to show truly big names, both locally and overseas – for example, works worth millions of dollars. These often feature invitation-only shows organized years in advance.
You have to show at smaller venues to start showing at bigger and bigger venues. The way to get noticed is to have very original work and a unique point of view, but also to persevere. You don’t really meet bigger curators etc until you’ve been taking photos for a while and they’ve seen your career develop.
NFTs and gatekeepers
This is the general point of gatekeeping. I’m not saying it’s good or bad; I think it’s more about how it’s implemented.
The point is, NFTs promise to democratize; it’s democratic—anyone can participate in it. The success stories of people making a lot of money on these platforms are impressive. However, you have to question: for every success story, how many other stories have not received the same recognition?
While the traditional art systems exhibited in larger and larger galleries are at least properly checked, janitors have at least one system that does so (there is a history of photography to refer to, studied spanning 200 years, and spanning longer than that Art History Genealogy), NFTs are not really the same. That said, with NFTs, because anyone can do it, the people there may not necessarily have the same educational uniformity. A collector person might collect more random than work, which has some artistic value.
I think actually, there’s a lot of the same. How do you sell another beautiful landscape photo like the other 50 landscape photos?
It’s great to be disruptive and try new and new things. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. But if everyone spoils by making the same images, maybe having a curation system isn’t that bad? At least I know I can walk into a local gallery in town and be moved or feel something because I know there will be some level of originality or quality already curated.
Image credit: Installation view, “Portrait in Black and White,” City Hall Gallery, 2022. Pictured is the work of Ali Choudhry. [Photography by (ImagePlay)]