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Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Oh no! Not the Negatives!

This story is getting a little traction. In a nutshell, an auction house sold a couple of NFTs of some photos. They packaged the NFTs with a print and the original glass plate negative in appealing frames, and included a small brass hammer, and invited the buyer to "make the object permanently digital" by smashing the glass plate.

Fundamentally you're buying: a print, a glass negative, a hammer, and a bunch of fairy dust/hype.

This was remarkably successful, they sold the two for more than $125,000 (if that's NZ money which is not clear at all, about $USD85,000.) This NFT hype machine is great!

Now, I oppose NFTs and all things crypto. These things are stupid, they are basically scams, they are objectively bad for the world and for almost everyone involved. Still, this particular one is hilarious.

It is hilarious specifically because of the reaction it has generated from Serious Photography People. I saw one person angry that you'd destroy "our" history, and of course there is a general outcry about the destruction of negatives. There is, of course, no particular reason to suppose the buyer will smash the negative.

But let us think on this a bit more. This is basically a rehash of the fetish that surrounds negatives.

The subject of these photos, Charles Goldie, is what one might call a minor artist. His paintings are notable enough to be worth forging (apparently) but he's not exactly in the pantheon. The paintings go, generally, for low six figures. On another day, the people so angry about this auction would probably complain that it's all money laundering, but today, Goldie is a Very Important Historical Figure. So he's not a nobody, but he's not really an important somebody. The photos in question have been, in various forms, "in circulation" so they are notable depictions of a minor notable person.

Basically these negatives are not worthless trash, of $5 thrift store finds, but nor are they uber special. A fan of Goldie's might buy one for small real money. Say, $1000. That would be kind of a niche sale, but maybe it would be doable.

The brutal truth is that negatives like this have no substantive value. They are in no meaningful way history, nor are they important to our understanding of anything. Whether they survive another 100 minutes or another 100 years literally nobody is ever going to print from them again, except possibly as a stunt. Thus, they have no direct utility. Excellent scans exist (largely because of this auction) and we don't need any more. Probably we don't in any meaningful way even need those. In any future where the scans are lost, nobody cares about a minor kiwi painter.

These negatives are, essentially, collectible fan objects, and that's it.

It speaks volumes that the critics of this seem to think (sometimes) that there is a museum involved (there is not) or that the museum will be smashing the negatives (no museum, and the seller isn't smashing anything) and so on, despite the reportage on it being invariably short items that describe the situation with perfect clarity.

I am doubly amused that the fetishization of the negative is being done here largely by people who shoot digital.

The fetishization of negatives is dopey and leads mainly to comedy fun.


  1. Maybe I'm dumb but what exactly do the NFTs contain? I read the linked article but I don't think they said (but I could be wrong and it went over my head). If you bought one and destroyed the plate with the hammer and threw the bits in the trash, including the hammer, what is it that's left for you to own? How would you enjoy that NFT?

    The resale market for this might be fun to watch. If the two items are bought by two different people, one of whom does the hammer bit but the other doesn't, which NFT will go up inn value more?

    1. NFTs have a little wiggle room, but normally they contain nothing whatever. They are proof that you spent money to buy an abstraction with no rights that in any way resemble ownership of anything. This is the stub of a ticket to a concert.

      In this case, the owner DID also buy a print and a negative. Smash the negative and you still have the print. Burn that and you have nothing.

      But the whole shebang was worth maybe $1000 anyways, so you already overpaid.

      I cannot speak to the buyer's motivation here, but a big part of Fine Art Buying is simply paying to be part of the story. Nobody buys a Richard Prince simply because they love the work and want to hang it over the sofa (although they may ALSO), they buy a Prince because they want to be part of the story. They want to be the guy that paid $1M for the ripped-off thing that's embroiled in litigation, that's all over the art news, that might even make the NYT on a slow news days.

      I happen to think the NFT stories are particularly stupid, and have no legs. I think people who pay to be part of THAT story will find themselves mocked, rather than cool, but that's a risk you take with a Monet too.

    2. The NFT will go up in value provided the supply chain of greater fools doesn't bottom out first (as seems likely). The NFTs contain ... nothing. When the domain expires and the physical server(s) decommissioned, the notional 'owners' (whoever's left holding the bag) will not even have that.

      The negatives are of course, priceless artyfacts. presh-ussssss, MY presh-usssss.

  2. So what do people mean when they talk about selling their photos as NFTs? Can an NFT contain the jpg/dng/tiff/raw? I presume yes, since in the above sale, it included a print and a negative. Will people make different resolution jpgs available as separate NFTs?

    Can an NFT contain a collection of other NFTs, the way mutual funds contain more than one stock type?

    Why does this feel like a con? I have a nagging feeling that I'm missing something basic. I'll go watch another couple of youtube explanation videos again, see if it sinks in this time.