Since launching Promise Land in autumn, more than half of Jones’ 99 NFTs have sold – some for many thousands of dollars. But for the artist, the emerging market is as much about the community as it is about sales
When photographer Gregory Eddi Jones first looked into non-fungible tokens (NFTs), he had his misgivings. It was shortly after digital artist Beeple sold a work at Christie’s for $69m in March this year, and the buzz around NFTs was palpable.
“I have always been interested in the intersection of photography and technology,” he says. “But I couldn’t find anyone else I knew who was trying to learn about NFTs. I ended up following a group of people on Twitter, but all they talked about was buying NFTs and smoking blunts. I thought to myself: ‘I don’t know if this is a culture I want to be a part of.’”
Now, the Philadelphia-based artist is part of a nascent community of photographers who are cashing in on the new medium. The 99 works from his most recent TS Eliot-inspired photobook, Promise Land, are available on OpenSea: the largest peer-to-peer marketplace for NFTs. More than half have already sold, some for many thousands of dollars.
It was not until the autumn, however, that Jones got serious about selling his work on the blockchain, after seeing fellow photo artist Alejandro Cartagena’s project, The 50 Carpoolers, take off online. “Here was another photographer who I had met, and whose work I had known for a while, selling work as NFTs” he says. “All of a sudden, it sold out in a couple of weeks, and a bell rang in my brain.”
For Jones, the emerging market has become as much about the community coalescing around it as about sales. He holds weekly online chat sessions on Twitter, where photographers and collectors share what they have learned over recent months. For the artist, who is “not a technical person”, these sessions have been invaluable.
“We often talk about differences between platforms where we can sell NFTs, and the benefits of artists creating their own smart contracts,” he says. “There are some photographers who understand the ins-and-outs of the technology very well, which makes it all the more important that we talk about things. We’ve all been learning together.”
“We want to get people engaged with the ideas behind the work, rather than just convincing them that it is collectible, or something that is worth investing in. It is a very delicate balance, and one that we still have not fully resolved yet”
The online community has also proved useful for discussing one of the thornier issues around NFTs: how to retain curatorial and creative integrity in an arena which is predicated on commercial interests. Conversations around how to stage virtual exhibitions of NFTs, which Jones hopes could give photographers some control over the presentation of their work, are ongoing.
“On platforms like OpenSea, NFTs are automatically placed in the context of being a commodity rather than a work of art… We want to get people engaged with the ideas behind the work, rather than just convincing them that it is collectible, or something that is worth investing in. It is a very delicate balance, and one that we still have not fully resolved yet.”
But the fact that they are in uncharted territory also presents artists with a world of opportunities, Jones continues. “Photography does not really have a native platform. It could be manifested in print, in an exhibition or solely as a digital experience,” he says. “We haven’t yet started to see much [of the latter] yet, so there is a lot of room for new ideas which are inspired by this new environment.”
Meanwhile, NFTs have also provided a means of circumventing the traditional system of finding galleries to exhibit and sell works – a model which Jones and others have had “very little luck” with. “There are not enough galleries to support the amount of talented photo artists working today. Now, the growth of NFTs feels like an opportunity for them to be able to represent themselves.”
Could it be the art world’s next Instagram moment? “I think so,” says Jones. “We are right on the cusp of all of this going very mainstream. This time next year there are going to be a lot more photographers getting into the NFT space, who see its potential as a way to support themselves and build a sustainable career as an artist,” he adds. “It’s enormously exciting.”
Promise Land by Gregory Eddi Jones is published by SPBH editions. Access the NFT collection here.