During my BFA studies in photography, I spent 4 years working in a photo lab. I scanned and digitally restored thousands of archival photographs: images belonging to families, corporate collections like dentists and hospitals, newspapers like the Toronto Star, and local historical archives of the Weston Family, Gooderham and Worts, and more. All these types of catalogs showed me the different ways that we document life around us and made me consider the way ownership affects the circulation of these images or lack thereof.
August Sander, a notable German documentary photographer of the 20ᵗʰ century, is one of many prominent photographers whose archive has been passed down and preserved for generations to be admired, studied, and interpreted. His work has been acquired by many important institutions including the MoMA, Tate Modern, Getty Museum, and more.
¹ Image courtesy of MoMA
Up until now, the accessibility of the archive has been limited by museums that may choose when and what to display of his work, as well as public and private libraries that offer photo-books for consultation or borrowing. Julian Sander, the fourth descendant of the family, has passed on the legacy of his archive to the blockchain as a public collection of NFTs as a reminder that “things that are unknown disappear.”
On February 10ᵗʰ, Fellowship Trust launched the first ever 10,000 photo NFT project. You may have heard of other NFT projects including Cool Cats, CryptoPunks, or Bored Ape Yacht Club. Each project contains a collection of 10,000 programmatically generated unique NFTs that can be owned by anyone on the Ethereum blockchain and used as avatars for their digital identity.
The success of these examples spawned numerous 10k generative NFT collections. The portrait-like design of these projects often results in owners displaying the NFT as their profile picture for social networks like Twitter. Fellowship Trust, a group of artists, curators, and collectors, are the first to release a 10k collection of photographs, as opposed to digital art.
² via @fellowshiptrust on Twitter
Newcomers to NFTs are still trying to figure out what an NFT is versus what an NFT does. The August Sander 10k collection illustrates that NFT projects can have different functions beyond profile pictures or avatars. This project marks the beginning of creating new accessibility for photographic archives that allows anyone with an internet connection to view all works regardless of who owns each individual token. Many notable art institutions have online collections available to the public, however, these collections are limited by what is chosen to be viewable to the public and can be changed at any moment. Because there is no central point of control of the August Sander collection, there is no one that can limit access to the photographs. This allows for a new way of thinking about how we access photographic archives that goes beyond the traditional model of institutional or private collections.
In addition to accessibility, the ability for members of the public to obtain pieces of this collection allows for a new way of understanding ownership in relation to history. Previously, only estates, galleries, art institutions, and wealthy private collectors could be owners of important historical images. Fellowship Trust has opened up this archive to the community, creating new opportunities for the public to take part in digital ownership of historical photographs. Anyone with a token can now become a steward of August Sanders’ legacy on the blockchain. Leading up to the public release of the collection, Fellowship distributed pre-mint spots to several photography organizations like RAW DAO, Obscura DAO, and Quantum NFT. This allotment to the community allowed for the collection to be owned by nearly 4000 people instead of a central point of authority like a museum or private collector.
Mimicking the magical process of darkroom prints suddenly appearing, on February 11ᵗʰ the metadata and image of each token was revealed. Over time, additional attributes will be included in the metadata of this collection, resulting in “an accumulated knowledge that infers that pictures are not simply things to look at, but things to know.” By combining blockchain technology with 20ᵗʰ century history, the August Sander 10k project pays homage to photography’s past while paving a new road for its future.
³ My collection on OpenSea
Here are two NFTs of Sanders’ work currently in my collection. I am thankful for the folks at Fellowship and Julian Sander for allowing me to join a community that has re-birthed the work of the most significant portraitist of the 20th century, August Sander.