“I find fleeting moments in the city,” the New York-based photographer Ben Zank tells me. “It could be an opened hydrant on my block, an unattended sinkhole on the side of the road, or just some street cones. And then I figure out how a human figure could interact with it. I’m picky, but I’m also not picky. In a city where most places and things are off-limits, being creative with what you do and don’t use is important.”
He’s spent a decade making spontaneous photographs in the city, many of them self-portraits. He’s laid in the salt reserve on 145th Street, and he’s walked into a bush in a Brooklyn cemetery. He’s lost his keys while diving into the snow. He’s even braved the East River. One of the earliest of these photographs dates back to 2013, when he was taking a self-portrait every day for a year.
“When I first started making self-portraits in the early 2010s, showing my face was a key element,” he remembers. “I used my facial expressions to set the tone and emotion of the image. Over time, I grew tired of my face, but I also grew tired of conveying emotions with expressions.”
The body, he realized, could be just as effective at capturing the emotions and atmosphere of daily life in the city, from moments of frustration or ennui to instances of unexpected beauty, joy, and grace. Even if the face remained hidden. In that sense and others, Urban Anomalies evokes memories of the surrealists, particularly the painter René Magritte.
These playful and impromptu performances across the city, featuring Zank and friends, have culminated in the hugely popular NFT collection Urban Anomalies. “Much like many other artists who have cut their teeth growing up in the age of social media, I have felt taken advantage of and used as a content machine,” he admits. “For many years, we’ve been putting our best work on platforms like Instagram for essentially zero compensation with the hopes that some brand or collector will see it and want to hire or buy a print.
“After learning more about NFTs, I realized what a massive opportunity it was for people to gain true ownership of their work and be compensated fairly for the first time ever, possibly. The potential for artists to have a stronger control and level of ownership over their work online is a huge driving factor. Also, with NFTs, artists can continue to make royalties on secondary markets. Something that was almost impossible to do beforehand.”
Beyond its potential to revolutionize the art market, the blockchain feels like the perfect place for these images to exist. Urban Anomalies is uncanny in a way that seems tailormade for a space that lies at the intersection of the physical world and the virtual one–the familiar and the unknown. At the same time, the work explores the concept of anonymity and speaks to the possibilities of individual expression outside of the mainstream–ideas that also lie at the heart of the crypto art movement.
When I ask Zank where he thinks the NFT space will be in a year, he responds simply, “I have no idea what will happen in even a month. The NFT space moves faster than anything I’ve ever seen!” But he’s excited about the future. If not for the meteoric rise of NFTs, Urban Anomalies might not exist, at least not in its current form. “It took me a decade to know I was making a series,” he tells me.
“To be honest, without the blockchain and NFTs, I would have never compiled those works into any series whatsoever. I work spontaneously and sporadically, so the notion of creating a curated series usually seems like a far cry away from what I am normally doing in my work: making whatever comes to mind.” Of course, that sense of freedom and spontaneity continues to drive his work today. He’s still out there exploring street corners and sinkholes, transforming the city into his forever playground–one block at a time.