Photography in the Metaverse

In Focus: Penelope Umbrico on what the NFT medium means for photography

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Known for working with evolving image technologies, Penelope Umbrico discusses her NFT photo series, and ideas for potential blockchain-based projects

Penelope Umbrico’s Range: of Swiss Fort Knox has been developed specifically for the NFT space. The release is a continuation of her ongoing Range series, which began in 2012 with Range: of Masters of Photography. The body of work was an exploration of the “analogue history of photography within the digital torrent that is its current technological manifestation”. The first instalment focused on Aperture’s book series by the same name, taking iconic imagery of mountains shot by the “masters” of photography as its raw material. Umbrico then sought to “destabilise” these images by re-photographing and processing them through multiple filters in hundreds of iPhone camera apps. 

I wanted to look at the most stable subject (the mountain) and the most stable image technology, through the lens of the least stable image technology (smartphone camera apps),” she recalls. “In this work, the collision of photo grain, dot-screen, pixel, and screen resolution creates undulating moirés under the delirious filter effects of the camera apps – most of which simulate the mistakes of analogue film photography such as light leaks and chemical burns.”

This digital space is inherently devoid of natural light, but it’s still a carrier of light none-the-less  – the natural world, seen on screen, through screen light. And so it made sense to think of this project within the NFT space”

In this first project, Umbrico played with the role of light in photography. Whereas all photographs require light as a starting element, in Range, its role is inverted – the artificial light leaks seen in the images are the result of “an algorithm loaded into the vacuum of a chip, capable of producing nearly endless variations within the space of a few seconds”. 

With this in mind, Umbrico later understood the possibility of a natural continuation for Range into the NFT medium: “This digital space is inherently devoid of natural light, but it’s still a carrier of light none-the-less  – the natural world, seen on screen, through screen light. And so it made sense to think of this project within the NFT space.”

In of Swiss Fort Knox – developed specifically for the NFT space as part of Assembly’s series of curated drops with artists – Umbrico similarly re-photographs existing images of mountains, though this time the raw material is composed of images of only a single mountain range. The Swiss Alps, for example, beneath which lie two data centers that provide “long-term access to our digital cultural and scientific assets”. 

Following this, the creative process remains much the same as before, consisting of processing these iPhone photographs through numerous camera apps that simulate the “mistakes” of analogue photography. These apps warp the original image, blending hallucinogenic colours with “the disorienting effects of the device’s gravity sensor”. Hundreds of iterations were created, and then refined to a set of 50.

Conceptually, this project builds on the series’ overarching theme of destabilisation. Here, however, the stability of the subject matter comes not just from the mountains, but from the data centers themselves (in which, ironically, “the blockchain containing the NFT is likely stored”). 

Functioning as a “contemporary cultural depository”, Swiss Fort Knox offers protection from “any known civil, terroristic and military threat”, as well as “environmental disasters such as earthquakes, floods, landslides and large-scale fires”.  In Umbrico’s distorted images, the stability of the data center’s natural fortifications is compromised “through the generative changes of each iteration, yet now remains fixed in time through the blockchain”. 

As with of Masters of Photography, this latest project presents a dialogue between distance and proximity, limited and unlimited, the singular and the multiple, and the fixed and the itinerant.

Reflecting on this move into the NFT medium, Umbrico explains that it felt like a natural continuation of her photographic practice, which frequently explores evolving image technologies and how they continue to affect us. 

In this respect, NFTs represent the latest evolution, and present myriad new points of debate around long standing issues such as rarity and ownership in photography. For Umbrico, the recent blossoming of NFTs also poses another question and a possible line of inquiry for her future work: “What does it mean to live in-screen, where sunlight is replaced by screen-light, and a reflective medium like paper is replaced by a projective one?”

Range: of Swiss Fort Knox by Penelope Umbrico is created in collaboration with Assembly. Access the NFT sale here

Daniel Milroy-Maher

Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.