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Historical Photography Preservation with NFTs: The Art Form of the Future? Ft. ArtHaus NFT 20 min read

On a crisp Friday afternoon in late October, as the leaves were on the cusp of exploding into orange flames, I walked into Madman Espresso to meet Hank O’Neal. 

I had first heard of Hank O’Neal a few months ago when I met Suhayb Zarroug, Randy Friedberg, and Franco Valentino to feature their NFT photography venture on The Oppy. Little did I know that Hank has been a prolific character in New York’s photography and jazz music scene for the past few decades, after he spent a number of years working for the Central Intelligence Agency. So what does an ex-CIA agent, renowned photographer, and record label owner have to do with NFTs? 

Hank, who has resided in New York City since 1967, reflects on New York then and now as wonderful in starkly different ways. He doesn’t drink coffee, but accepted a hot chocolate, and after whirlwind chats of how he’s opened several jazz recording studios and telling me what used to exist where many NYU buildings stand now, he tells me of how he came to spend his career photographing people like Andy Warhol by a happy coincidence. But something tells me he found himself in circles next to prolific characters such as Dizzy Gillespie and Jackie Onassis due to his open-minded, jovial, and curious nature. 

The NFT project arose out of a project that began in 1985. Hank was asked to take a portrait of Andy Warhol as he was interviewed by Jerry Aronson for a documentary film about The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, a poet known for his counterculture views in the 50s and 60s. Hank repeatedly says how “expressionless” and empty Andy was that day, “kind of answer[ing]” the interview questions and not providing much at all for the portraits or interview. Hank decided to “Warhol the Warhol” by applying transparent primary color watercolors to the portraits (shown in header image) to the photographs of Andy, creating the piece called One Hundred Andys (above). He also applied double or more exposures to the images to bring some form of life to the “really ordinary portraits.” The result was truly a meta reenactment of Warhol’s iconic pop art style, but used on images of his ironically colorless self that day in 1985. Twenty years later, Hank digitally regenerated and enlarged these photos, and ultimately produced a permanent installation at the Remington Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto in 2015. 

Enter Suhayb Zarroug, Franco Valentino, and Randy Friedberg, joint partners of a venture called ArtHaus NFT. The perfect blend of a business venture in technical expertise, intellectual property law, and art marketing talent, ArtHaus seeks to turn the work of artists and photographers into NFTs so they may be preserved with their original integrity in the blockchain for eternity. This new medium is separate and does not compete with that of traditional art galleries in that the physicality of an art piece will always be respected and sought after, but through blockchain technology, more artists can have their work preserved and shared without the barriers that sometimes prevents an aspiring artist from breaking into the scene. Hank O’Neal is a well known name in the photography landscape, and his “Warholing” of his Andy Warhol portraits emphasize the irony between Warhol’s stark, colorful statements in his work and the stoic, mundane portraits taken of himself. To preserve 100Andys as an NFT is to establish its imminence forever in the ever changing landscape of technology and evolving art forms. 

ArtHaus NFT is slated to launch this winter in collaboration with D-ID, an AI based platform known for its digitization of family heritage photos. The collaborators hope that the animated versions of Warhol will add further value, sentiment, and significance to the preservation efforts via the NFT. 

Read below for my conversation with ArtHaus NFT founders CEO Franco Valentino and CCO Suhayb Zarroug on this venture. 

Franco: My good friend Randy Friedberg is a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property and is currently chairman of the Entertainment Law Committee at the New York City Bar Association. Randy knew Suhayb (Su), who is a leader in the art dealing world. My background is in technical consulting, and I started my firm Narrative SEO, a technical SEO consulting company, about 20 years ago. Randy and Su came to me a year ago and said, “What’s all this NFT stuff that’s happening?” In our initial discussions, I gave a little bit of an explanation of the blockchain. It’s like the Internet back when it first came out, and nobody knows the exact outcome of what’s going to happen. Then you’ll see the value starting to narrow itself down. I think we’re seeing a little bit of an initial correction with Bitcoin pricing right now, the ethereum pricing crashing. What we’re also seeing is the super valuable product within the blockchain space starting to surface and they’re things such as deeds and your car or home registration. In the future, they’ll be on your phone, they’re going to be a QR code that’s tied to your wallet. And that’s really where the value is, I think. 

I can see how this is playing into preserving art already, maintaining the intellectual property and origin of it. 

Franco: Exactly, this is a perfect segue into the art world, because provenance (the origin of a piece) is incredibly important. And the way that you prove provenance [of an art piece] is important. 

If an artist says, “Okay, I’m just going to start minting NFT’s now, and I have a name, anybody can do this.” And they’ll put a dropbox link up, they’ll embed that within the NFT. And then, if they don’t pay for the dropbox, the asset is gone. So you want to make sure that you’re using things like IPFS, which is an interplanetary file system, which is basically a blockchain Dropbox or Google Drive where it’s stateful, so as long as there are nodes that are willing to maintain these links, it will never go away. 

When you think about projects such as a huge name like a Picasso or Warhol, you have to be extremely diligent on the upfront process, meaning I want to mint my contract on the blockchain directly so I can prove that this is block zero, the original, and this is provenance. I have the artist details in here, and everything structurally that say, Sotheby’s would. So as we talked about this, there’s a gentleman named Hank O’Neal, who is in his 80s. He’s quite a character, he was an ex-CIA agent, and an incredible photographer. He says that he has these photographs of Andy Warhol that he took back in the 80s, and he would love to utilize them somehow, in animated form even. The pictures that he took in color are actually a permanent exhibition at an art museum in Ontario, Canada. 

We thought about this long and hard and there are two pieces to this initial launch. Warhol is obviously the biggest name in the art world from the pop art standpoint. The provenance is there because Hank was sitting in front of him; these are his original copyrights as the photographer. It’s a value to the world because this is the type of project that regardless of what is at the end of the blockchain industry, the NFT industry is doing this is one of those stateful projects that has a lifetime value. So we’re looking at it with a longer term lens instead of a “what’s happening right now and what’s hot.” This is a very unique photography space, especially with the historical aspect. 

Hank was also a really good friend of Jacqueline (Kennedy) Onassis, and Jackie O actually edited Hank’s photography books. So there’s another project in the works with him that we’re going to launch at some point. We’ve been approached by some very well known galleries to try to mimic this process that we’re trying to build within the NFT space for other very well known artists. While it’s a little early to discuss those, the overarching message is that the value is here, it’s a new medium, and we need to learn how to take advantage of that medium for everyone’s benefit. 

Suhayb: I feel like Franco, Randy, and I are sort of acting on what we’re saying we’re doing. Sometimes in the tech space people are always sending one consumer facing message when the reality is different behind the scenes. This isn’t just hype in the back; I think we’re acting on exactly what we’re talking about because of the provenance and utility with ramifications in the real world, giving credit where it’s due. 

How did Hank know about NFTs? I don’t know if I would expect someone in their eighties to be the first to know about NFTs, let alone make one. 

Franco: *laughs* We presented that to him. He is one of the most wonderful human beings you’ll ever meet. He’s an open vest and he’s open to new ideas. I think that’s what keeps him young as well. His mind is very open to new things, so he’s very excited about it.

When I met Hank in person, he most definitely had a youth-like curiosity and manner in which he spoke, and joked, “I’m a reasonably bright guy, they explained it to me, I said sure, go for it. If not, I’ve got other projects, more photos.”  

Suhayb: What’s interesting about Hank is that he had experience in the business world, so he was open to bringing business concepts to his work, whereas sometimes with photographers or artists we’ve worked with in the “physical” world, they make you jump through so many hoops to have access to their work, let alone offer to bring a concept like minting it forever as an NFT. 

Because even though Mick Rock, a renowned photographer of the biggest rock bands, has a Queen album cover photo on one of these [NFT] sites and it hasn’t sold because they had no marketing, I’m sure whatever consultants or agency he used probably charged him an arm and a leg to participate in this new landscape. 

Franco: From the business standpoint, processes and systems are what matter. We have a very well defined process of how we take an artist from how we register this historically. That really is what this is about with Hank, is how do we persist with him even after he’s gone? From a marketing standpoint, we have to make sure that that message is conveyed correctly, with a little bit of emotion, a little entertainment, and a ton of value. How do you structure your environment to make sure that the NFTs are stateful and how do you protect access to that? Randy and the entertainment law attorneys at the New York City Bar Association spoke with us about how for the first time in history, this technology would enable artists to make recurring revenue off of their artwork, because of the resale aspect, rather than the license and the percentages of the NFT transfers. 

It’s like dividends on a stock. 

Franco: Yes, exactly. 

So that’s game changing, because we all know the big names, but what about the normal artists that actually have been doing their craft for years and making a living on it? Well, now they can actually make a better living. Instead of having to hop their art, they put this out almost like a musician, right? You write a song and forevermore, you’re getting a little bit of a royalty off of it. That’s really what the value of NFT’s are for the artist and the world at large – its provenance, its historical registration. It can apply to musicians as well, instead of them having to sell ten million streams of their song, they can sell maybe 25 NFTs and actually make a living wage. 

So how do you think maybe the average consumer would consume this art given that I don’t think your average person knows too much about annuities or wouldn’t be able to purchase one necessarily? It sounds like it’s really good for the artists and in preserving the art and making recurrent revenue off of it. But for your average layman, what is the value in it for them? 

Franco: That’s a great question. I think there are so many different ways of answering it, because it’s a generational thing as well, regarding value. So I’m Gen X, I was born in ‘69. We were the first digital natives, so we’re really the first generation that understands and can natively absorb technology. Meanwhile, the boomers have a hard time with it, because they were exposed to technology so much later in life. So I would say there’s always a market for everything, because it only takes one, right, it only takes one person to buy the NFT. And it depends on how forward thinking that person is. There are a lot of lay people that are interested in it, and they can go get a wallet in five minutes, they’re up and they’ve got some ether in there, and can go play. Part of what we’re considering as well is there’s a 3D model aspect of these NFTs. So in Decentraland, there are these virtual worlds that are blockchain based. If we take this art, and they want to display it within the home they bought on Decentraland, or within their own gallery or somewhere digitally, we’re going to do this as well as create a 3D model of it. 

So they can put their Warhol on, Hank’s Warhol, on the wall, essentially. And that goes back to the value again. How much time and effort are you going to spend to really convey the beauty of these arts and creativity that people have created? 

Suhayb: It’s like a pie of segments. Because we’re gonna have those people who might come from a curatorial slash art world and collect photography, so they might like it for that aspect. Because it’s just the next and maybe last iteration of this series that Hank started digitally in 2005, so [the value is very high]. 

He Warhol’d the Warhols. 

Suhayb: I also think Gen Zs would like the animated Warhols simply because they’re funny and they know the concept of his art, but they probably don’t even care about the historical aspects. And that’s really great and important to have too as a customer segment, because I come from the art world, where so many folks only want to sell to specific people with the right “art” background; you have to jump through so many hoops to have access to it. So our project democratizes the art for everyone, in a way.

It also seems like it reduces a barrier to entry into preserving someone’s art right? As you’re saying, I can often imagine it’d be extremely stuffy, you’d have to be a big name in the scene to work with you. Whereas with this, you could just be a really talented Joe on the subway who has talent. 

Right, as far as preserving it, if we had to go about this in the physical world, or maybe Web 2, we’d have to convince some foundation to put it in their permanent collection.

Franco: That’s the other thing, because you can store file types on the blockchain, obviously, you can’t store the physical work. And that’s a whole different thing. Right? The physical work, I don’t think that will ever change; the galleries aren’t really at risk of losing that model. The physical art galleries will always exist. 

So there is no cannibalization of the art form found in galleries.

Franco: The other side of it is, you know, banks have negatives for these things, and you can digitize and sell that negative, in which case, the entire copyright gets transferred over to the purchaser. I’m no lawyer, and I don’t pretend to be, but copyright law is very, very complicated in that you can either give a series and a license to reproduce essentially, or you can actually give the negative in that sense. And then in the new negative model, where it’s a digital image. That’s why this provenance is so important, I personally don’t think that you can prove provenance any other way without minting yourself on the blockchain, block zero, basically, for your art collection. 

There is a very simple way to do it. But any NFT project that does not use IPFS and encrypts the data is valueless, in my opinion, because it’s hackable; it’s easy to essentially write a program and go search for it and pull the original asset out. So that’s the magical piece of this, maintaining the statefulness of the artwork.

You go to Open Sea and you mint an NFT on Open sea, you’re piggybacking off of their massive blockchain, right. So your block number, the first one that you issued, is really like, block 3000 900 million, whatever. If I’m going to spend a significant amount of money on a piece of an NFT artwork, I want to make sure that it was block zero for that collection. 

Yeah, so those are the things that from a business standpoint become really important, which is why the conversations with these international galleries are happening, because it’s really the only way to prove it and we’ve already seen a few fail. 

For example, Mick Rock was basically a rock star in and of himself; his photography name doesn’t get bigger in the rock band scene. Everyone that you can think of, from Mick Jagger hugging him, you know, kissing David Bowie, photographed, it’s unbelievable. Rock had a company mint that famous Freddie Mercury picture, and they put it out on Open Sea for just $70,000 with a basic explanation of Mick Rock. I think it’s criminal to some degree to treat an artist that prolific like that. 

Mick owns the copyright. Before he passed, he was already in talks to sell the entire rights to the Queen album cover and all the photos that came along with it, including video. So, $70,000 for that level of value is just too little.

I feel like the provenance aspect is so overlooked, especially in the beginning of this run up because the art world was sort of trying to deny it. But the other day, the FBI raided a collection at a museum that turned out to be fake Basquiats. In my other ventures dealing with art, I’ll be working with some giant names, and the purchasers merely have to take my word for it that it’s real and be their own judge of the piece’s authenticity, and that’s how the art industry has worked up until now. 

This must have huge implications for proving the authenticity of artwork and reducing plagiarism and ensuring the payouts go to their rightful owners. 

I think traditional art needs to have an NFT attached to it to where you can have the artists. Yeah, if you think about this, you go to your lawyer and sign a certificate of authenticity within the NFT when you and you just hand them that in their wallet, when you buy the artwork. So it’s sequentialized in some way.

Where do you see this project headed? You’re saying three to five years from now, because that’s really different compared to what a lot of things aren’t like the trendiness of everything going on, especially with all the blockchain chaos currently. So where do you see it headed after five years from now, and then also, what do you want people to know? And how can they get involved if they want to learn more? 

Franco: So I think the entire NFT space right now is in that early adopter phase. We know that bell curve of adoption, right? I think we’re just above that initial curve, where the early adopters already know what this is and we’re sort of coming up to that secondary peak where mass media or mass market starts coming into play. It’s almost like real estate. Markets in real estate can fluctuate, but if I have a lake house on a peninsula, it will never be worth less than a million dollars. Whereas in NFTs, there are pockets of different projects and NF T’s that are going to be stateful. You talked about the Jay Z’s or the Steve Aioki’s of the world, by the way, speaking of provenance, they’re beginning to mint their blockchain projects that way. All of the other fluff [in the industry] starts to peel away and in a three to five year timeframe, it’s the projects that you’re attached to that have that holistic approach that will survive. It’s not just about the art, it’s also about the community around the art, it’s about the process behind how the art artists brought it to this new medium. 

I’m actually really excited that we’re kind of launching at the bottom of this crash for Eth and Bitcoin in general. Because that’s usually where you get rid of all the trash, right? Projects die and go away. There’s a few financial houses that have taken a turn. I think these are the projects that persist now. 

As for One Hundred Andys, there’ll be a documentary and also a video with Hank and some other pretty special things that we want to embed within it that connect you to Hank right directly within the NFT. It’ll make you feel almost you’re there with Hank in the studio with Andy in 1985. 

Lastly, it’s such a fun project!

To stay updated on ArtHaus NFT, follow their instagram at @onehundredandys

Contact: Suhayb Zarroug

Images granted for use by ArtHaus NFT; do not copy.

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