Photography became part of the fine art world only about a century ago. Now NFT photography is making inroads with younger collectors.
Avid NFT photography collector Freddie snatched a photograph for $2,300 in November. Two months later, he flipped it for $30,400.
Welcome to the world of NFT photography collecting, where fine art meets decentralized finance for Millennials. Data from Artprice and estimates from Collector Daily suggest that the NFT photography market grew in 2021 to $200 million, the size of the traditional fine art print photography market.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The art world is undergoing a massive transformation because of a rare confluence of major cultural and technological changes.
First, Millennials have emerged as adults during an era of enormous technological transformation, and their Gen-Z successors are digital natives who spend an increasing percentage of free time online. Second, those Millennials and Gen-Zers are coming into money—the greatest wealth transfer in history has over $35 trillion moving from Baby Boomers to younger generations. These conditions are fueling digitally native art collecting in both primary and secondary markets. Third, there has been an enormous growth of cryptocurrency wealth over the last five years, creating a new generation of art buyers.
Fine art photography is at the center of this confluence of technological immersion, wealth transfer, and crypto wealth generation, as the NFT photography market not only transforms but grows significantly.
Freddie, who like many in NFT-land prefers a handle to a full name, is more bullish on NFTs than physical photos: “I believe society will gradually become more digitized, and as that happens we will place more and more value in our digital lives. As the digital native generations start to have the funds our parents had, and we spend more time in front of screens, we will use our disposable incomes to collect—to support the arts, preserve wealth, and impress our friends online.”
Traditional photography was once the upstart
NFT photography was an upstart looking for a way into the photo market just as traditional photography once sought inclusion in the fine art world.
The photography market has been around for over a century. Initially steered by commercial galleries such as 291 in New York City and nurtured by iconic photographer Alfred Steiglitz, the medium began to establish itself within the larger fine art world. In 1930, the Museum of Modern Art in New York began collecting photographs. And by 1940, MoMA established one of the first departments in an art museum dedicated to photography. Today, leading photographers are part of the broader contemporary art market, which in 2021 was valued at over $51 billion.
The emergence of social media and smartphone cameras has made photography the dominant factor in the visual culture of our time, in turn driving the dramatic rise in the traditional photography fine art market over the last few decades. The five most expensive photographs at Sotheby’s auctions in the 1980s averaged $98,000. By the 2010s, this rose to $2.9 million. In the same time, the number of photographs auctioned more than tripled.
Together with advances in digital manipulation software, digital photography reshaped the art practice of most photographers. Artists have taken greater control of their images than was possible when they worked in a darkroom with negatives and prints.
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