Credit: Aaron Huey, Perimeter 004, 2022 (link here). Courtesy of the artist and elementum
Aaron Huey among with other leading photographers discuss what is changing in Web3, interview conducted by Danielle Ezzo. Published on Right Click Save (17 January 2022) on the occasion of National Geographic’s inaugural NFT collection celebrating Nat Geo's 135th year anniversary.
Danielle Ezzo: Walter Benjamin argued that the development of art from a unique object into a reproducible commodity destroyed its aura. As an artist, how do you reckon with the NFT, which combines digital “uniqueness” with hyper-commodification?
Aaron Huey: How I reckon with the NFT is still an open question for sure, largely because all of my projects relevant to this conversation, though in the works for a year and a half in some cases, only started coming into public view last summer. Most are launching over the coming months. My first NFTs were photographs from the edges of metaverse worlds and leaps from those edges, but I’m not sure they have an aura.
I want a collector to have ownership of my unique image/moment, and I don’t consider the sale of it wrapped in a smart contract to dim any of its light (aura)! The market has definitely figured out how to manufacture and sell digital “uniqueness,” but hyper-commodification feels more characteristic of a PFP project with 10,000 images. The art we are talking about today seems less in danger of that label.
DE: How does the blockchain stand to change the world of digital photography?
AH: The blockchain will change everything. It’s a key to decentralized storage; a new stream of income for many creators; a new tool to add utility and layers of interaction to our art; and, perhaps most importantly, it is the best tool we have to prove the authenticity of an image. This is vital in establishing the provenance of photographic news imagery. I say that because I’ve spent the past year working at Stanford’s Starling Lab, researching and teaching new frameworks for data integrity in the fight against mis- and disinformation.
Artwork below: Aaron Huey, Currency of Protest (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Off Paradise Gallery
DE: NFTs can be seen to collapse the boundary between commercial and fine art photography. This gives photographers the chance to control their work’s distribution, while also making them responsible for curation, marketing, sales, and aftersales support. Has greater freedom forced you to bear a greater burden as an artist? How has the redistribution of labor brought about by NFTs affected your practice?
AH: I think the line between commercial and fine art was blurred long before the world discovered the NFT. In my case, the independence from agents, brands, and oversight has meant that my practice has slowed down hugely owing to new technical hurdles and my own perfectionism. In truth, thus far it has been a much higher work-to-pay ratio than I am used to. While there are plenty of things that don’t work when relying on a brand like National Geographic for the execution of a project — as I have for the past decade — distribution is definitely not an issue. Coincidentally, they are dipping their toes into Web3 with their genesis drop today, which includes work by Mia, ioulex, and me.
DE: The pace of art’s production and distribution has accelerated with the rise of social media. I wonder if that explains the allure of AI tools that generate synthetic imagery in real time. What is your relationship to the current speed of production?
AH: I’ve slowed down my use of physical cameras and social media, but I’ve sped up my production of images made with and inside of computer programs. AI does seem to be the greatest accelerant currently, in some cases creating exponentially more images than each creator would normally produce. There is something quite addictive about pulling the lever of an AI tool, which can help to build out whole concepts in a day that would have previously taken months, often with surprising results. This brings with it its own high — a classic dopamine reward system.
For my “Currency of Protest” series, which was based on remixed imagery of protest movements, the speed of creation morphed my images repeatedly into new and evolving stories — like a crystal ball showing me potential futures. In that case, I leaned into the speed as a tool in itself. On the other hand, having ADHD myself, I only know one speed.
Artwork below: Aaron Huey, Leap 032 (Long Exit), 2022 (link here). Courtesy of the artist and elementum