The claim is that NFTs got rid of gatekeeping in photography. Anyone can pick up a camera, mint a few NFTs, and make money. But what does this actually mean?
I think that for this argument to work, we need to do three things. We need to define what gatekeeping is, how it has traditionally applied to photography (in this case, specifically art photography), and then see how it works with NFTs.
Gatekeeping is one of those buzzwords that keeps popping up, and everyone hates it. It might not be so bad, though. Gatekeeping is prevention of access to benefits (in this context, to career-related benefits). It’s probably better if I explain this with an example.
If you want to be a thoracic surgeon, you can’t wake up tomorrow and be one. There are gatekeepers. There are several levels of education, which are gate-kept; you have to do well in high school to get into university and to then get into medical school. Each step along the way, there are gatekeepers making sure that you meet a certain standard of knowledge, usually through tests. Once you’ve passed your degrees and certificates and gotten through the education system, you’ll have to do residencies where you learn on the job until you progress in your career. Again, there will be gatekeepers along the way.
By flipping this example around, if you need to get open heart surgery tomorrow (for whatever reason), you’ll probably want to make sure that you’re getting a surgeon who’s gone through all the right steps, which were gate-kept along the way.
Gatekeeping in Art
With art photography, it works a little differently. You don’t need to go to school or university to study photography to become a photographer (at least not in Australia). But realistically, there are still career gatekeepers, such as critics, curators, and gallery owners.
So, you might show first at smaller local galleries. From here, you might leverage your work into larger state or even national galleries. Finally, if you make it far enough, you might show your work at larger international galleries.
To reiterate, smaller galleries might be state or city ones that show local artists. They might have a gallery space but not a huge budget to pay you to produce work or even enough to pay artist fees. These might have open calls or programming scheduled a year in advance. A medium gallery might have noted national artists but not really quite the budget to show work from international creatives. These might have fewer open calls to show work, or might be more competitive, or might do more curated shows by invite only. Usually, these are programmed one to two years in advance. And then, the biggest galleries and museums might show the really big names both locally and from overseas — for example, work that might be valued in the millions of dollars. These usually have programming that is invitation only and is organized several years in advance.
You kind of have to show at the smaller venues to start showing at the bigger and bigger venues. The way to get noticed is to have very original work and a unique point of view, but also to be persistent. You won’t really get to meet the bigger curators and such until you’ve been making photographs for a while and they’ve kind of seen your career progress.
NFTs and Gatekeeping
That’s kind of the general gist of gatekeeping. I’m not saying it’s good or bad; I think it’s more about how it’s implemented.
The point is, NFTs promise democratization; it’s democratic — anyone can get into it. There are wildly impressive success stories of people making lots of money on these platforms. But then, you have to question: for every success story, how many others are there that aren’t getting that same recognition?
And while the traditional art system of showing at progressively bigger galleries has at least the checks in place so that the people who are gatekeeping at least have a system of doing it (there is a history of photography to go by and research that spans over 200 years, and a lineage of art history that spans much longer than that), NFTs don’t really have the same. That is to say, with NFTs, because anyone can do it, the folks on there might not necessarily have the same sort of uniformity of education. Someone who is a collector might collect more randomly than getting work, which has some sort of artistic value.
I guess in real terms, there is just so much of the same. How do you sell yet another pretty landscape photograph just like the other 50 landscape photographs?
It’s great to be disruptive and try novel new things. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you necessarily should. But if everyone is being disruptive by making the same images, then perhaps having a system of curation isn’t so bad? At least I know I can walk into the local galleries in town and be moved or feel something because I know that there will be a certain level of originality or quality that has been curated.
Image credits: Installation view, ‘Portraiture in Black and White,’ Town Hall Gallery, 2022. Artwork by Ali Choudhry is pictured. [Photography by (ImagePlay)]