In November of last year, the curated photography platform Quantum Art launched its first collection: a series of cyanotype self-portraits made by the artist Amy Elkins over the course of 377 days. For each of those days, beginning in March of 2020 with the start of the pandemic and ending when she received her second vaccine, she made a picture. Many of them were created within the confines of a studio apartment.
From there, Elkins printed these portraits using what she had at home: a printer, transparency film, and some cotton pretreated with cyanotype chemicals. She exposed them to sunlight and rinsed them in water. Cyanotypes have a rich history; the first book ever illustrated with photographic images was created using the nineteenth-century process.
But there was something significantly different about the Quantum collection: these cyanotypes were not available as printed objects or as part of a book you could hold in your hands. Instead, they could be collected as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which act as a certificate of authenticity for digital artworks, including image files. Rather than receiving a print in the mail, the buyers of these particular works would own them on the blockchain.
“Our first drop, Amy Elkins’s Anxious Pleasures, was the proudest moment for us at Quantum,” Justin Aversano, the CEO and Founder, tells me now. “It set the tone for Quantum’s success right at the launch.” If you belong to the photography world or the crypto space, Aversano’s name will be familiar, as will his partners in the launch: Kris Graves, Alexx Shadow, EXP_Table, and Jonas Lamis. The same month the team launched Quantum Art, one of Aversano’s own photographs became the fifth most expensive photograph ever sold–and the number one most expensive photograph sold as an NFT (by a long shot).
“The first moment I realized the potential of NFTs was when I thought about the infrastructure of the medium,” Aversano says now. There are a few things that make NFTs special. First, smart contracts, powered by the blockchain, can be created to automatically pay the original artist a percentage every time the work is sold on the secondary market. This is something artists have advocated for for decades now, and in the traditional art world, at least in the US, it has not been the norm.
“Simply, the fact that artists retain royalties in perpetuity, provenance on the blockchain, and ownership over their artwork is the major paradigm shift,” Aversano says. “Another rewarding thing has been seeing the artwork flourish more than it ever could on social media with likes and comments. NFTs create patrons out of your audience.”
Quantum was one of the first of its kind: an on-chain platform dedicated to photographers and their work. Since the launch, the team has gone on to curate and drop more than two dozen photography collections, with highlights from Kris Graves, Nydia Blas, Jon Henry, Amanda Lopez, Julie Blackmon, Delphine Diallo, Mercedes Jelinek, and many more. “We are always looking out for engaging storytelling through the imagery and culture,” Aversano says. “We’re also interested in how the work is expressed and its relevance to the human experience in the age of the pandemic.”
It’s hard to predict what NFT collectors will connect with the most, and that’s part of the fun. “Sometimes, it’s surprising, and sometimes it’s exciting,” Aversano admits. “It’s what you want it to be. More than anything, I think collectors value the quality of work, good storytelling, and how it relates to their existing collection.”
Aversano, Graves, and the rest of the Quantum team have major plans for the future of art in the age of Web3. In February of 2022, Quantum Art raised an A round of $7.5 million, led by True Ventures. With that, they’re looking to onboard more artists and even expand beyond photography.
They’ve also introduced Community Curated collections, inviting Quantum token holders to vote and decide on what submitted work they’ll mint next. “In the next year, more photographers will join the space, giving us more opportunities to collaborate and make new projects,” Aversano predicts.
His advice for emerging artists is to watch the space. “Join a community, and think carefully of your output since the blockchain is forever,” he urges. “Treat all of your collections as if they were going to be exhibited in a museum. Cohesiveness and narrative play an important role when thinking about a collection to mint.”
So far, the Quantum Artists have used an array of tools and media, from film formats and alternative printing processes to unique approaches to digital art and collage. The choice to honor the heritage of photography, while also bringing it into the uncharted future, was intentional on Aversano’s part. “The role of alternative processes such as Amy Elkins’s cyanotypes in the digital space is to keep its integrity and stay true to the alchemic medium of photography,” he tells me. “Just like painting, there will always be a need to express ideas through the tools of the artist.”