Alejandro Cartagena, 20th Century Photographs
Best known for his 2015 series, Carpoolers, Alejandro Cartagena is one of the first names from the traditional photography world to make his debut on the blockchain.
Cartagena’s work is held in prolific museums including Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography and the San Francisco MOMA – but found some of its most adoring fans on NFT marketplaces like SuperRare, where fans who saw the powerful images, years ago were finally able to purchase them in a format that made sense.
His latest collection, titled “20th Century Photographs”, was released on OpenSea Friday, August 20th, 2021. Alejandro´s practice is about layering his different projects together and to bring that gesture to the NFT space, he has airdropped 120 NFTs to his first supporters including Justin Aversano, who holds Siblings 1 and 10 for the Twin Flames collection.
20th Century Photographs builds off Alejandro’s prior work documenting the rise of Mexico’s upper middle class, and the experiences of Mexico’s working class as they commute to and from their jobs as day laborers. Through 20th Century Photographs, Alejandro sought to add a layer of history to this body of work on the blockchain, by exploring Mexico’s culture via so-called “expired” photos he rescued from landfills.
Morning Drop spoke to Alejandro about his new collection to get his perspective on the importance of historical context in photography, his insights into what makes this collection important, and a few teasers of what’s to come.
Interview paraphrased for brevity.
What inspired you to curate “20th Century Photographs”?
The project itself started over 6 years ago. Around the same time that I first published the carpoolers collection, I accompanied a friend to a flea market in Mexico City. People will dig through the trash and bring all sorts of objects they think they may be able to resell – and among those, were albums of photographs that gave me some pause.
I come from a background as a conservationist. Everything I initially learned about art and photography, I learned as a digitizer at a photography archive, where I would scan, date, clean, catalog, and otherwise get images ready for exhibition. I decided to start collecting the photographs as a sort of rescue project; the photos at one point had a meaning as records of feelings, memories, events, and identities, and I had hoped that in becoming a part of my archive, they could take on a new meaning as a reflection of our culture.
When I first started publishing my work on the blockchain, I eventually came to the realization that a lot of my photographs – as well as others – were completely devoid of context. More than any other medium, photography intends to represent something about the human experience – it provides a medium to represent the lives of ordinary people, and to make the real world (the lives lived by people outside of elite circles) visible. Through photography, we see how as humans, we all care largely about the same things, by showing us pictures of the things we commemorate. We take pictures of ourselves, each other, the social groups we belong to (work, friends), our faith (ceremonies, rituals), the places and objects we care about, and events we experienced (celebrations, vacations) – the categories are actually quite universal, independently of place, social class or time period. I found a total of 15 categories in 7000 pictures, and ultimately decided to pick the 500 that struck me as most universal.
I wanted to publish 20th century photographs as a gesture to contextualize my own work — creating a point of reference for where we came from, and where we’re going– and simultaneously bring a sense of permanence to this series of expired photographs.
There’s something I see that’s beautiful about the idea that these images, that were meant to be destroyed, will now be around forever. It’s the most improbable piece of visual history to be put on the blockchain.
Can you talk about the concept of “expired” photographs?
When a photograph is taken, it has an original meaning – it is a record of a feeling, memory, or experience that belonged to a particular person, which happened at a particular point in time. Once the photograph leaves that person’s possession, it loses that sentimental value. These photographs – outside of the possessions of the people in them and those who cared about them – are no longer able to communicate to us why a particular person or moment was important.
Bringing all these photographs together like this, however, allows us to find new meaning in them; seriality brings it forward. We start to see the story of ourselves as a species through the meticulous recording of the same apparently universal experiences. We start to ask ourselves, who told us we need to be looking like this, doing these things, at this level of imitation. These days, we might be able to point to social media or the internet as a vector for creating this degree of synchronicity but remember – these were taken well before the online era.
This is a project about the influence of photography on human culture. Even before we had an easy way of seeing it, we were mimicking each other.
How did you decide what would make it into the collection?
Over the years, I’ve collected well over 7000 photographs – and though all of them told the same story, the 500 I selected to be a part of this collection were those that best told the narrative of our species.
One thing I tried to shoot for was an overall sense of continuity. Because of the way I acquired these (in albums), I’d often be lucky enough to catch the story of one group or another through the course of their lives.
I’m releasing the collection in two parts; the next drop will be largely a continuation of this one, but with a few new categories. One of the really special things in the next series is a category I called “You and Me” – I was lucky enough to capture the story of a couple over the span of about 10 years, from the courtship to their growth as a family. Of course, it’s not the whole story – but you really feel like you come to know these people through these images.
The other thing I was really excited about was several of the images in the “Portraits of Men” collection. There are a total of 110 images that remind me of Carpoolers – it’s as if the men walked out of the photos and put on their Sunday best. I was really attached to these photos, and ultimately decided that the best thing for them was to go to the collectors of Carpoolers. Their support is what made this collection possible, and the integrity — the idea that these images would live together on the blockchain, in the same wallet — gave me a lot of peace.
Can you tell me a bit about how you see photography within the greater context of crypto art?
I want to preface this with the fact that this is all, of course, from my perspective as an archivist and publisher of collections. I can’t speak much to the way that this narrative fits with 1/1 photography, because a lot of my work connects with the collectibles space. I believe that the value in what I photograph isn’t in any one individual picture, but rather, in the story told by the body of work as a whole. The story I capture is what really has artistic value, in my view.
One thing you have to understand is that a lot of the value photography has is cultural – it captures a moment, and therefore, a lot of the value it has is in how many people see a picture and find it resonates. Because of the widespread sharing of images via social media, photography eventually got into this sad spot where in order for photography as art to accrue cultural value, it basically had to be given away for free – which if you think about it, can’t be said of any other artistic format.
This all has to do with the notion of ownership; for the first time, tokenizing photographs gave us a way to have provable ownership of them without restricting their visibility or distribution. I think the idea of being able to tokenize photographic works gave us this phenomenon of the “re-valuation” of photography, where a lot of the powerful images that have captured imaginations for free in the last 30 years are suddenly gaining tremendous value as a way to establish and prove ownership was created.
I tried to be very thoughtful about the way I can make my work digestible to people in the collectibles space. The idea of features and classifications as vital aspects of a body of photographic work is inherent in the traditional art photography world, which understands themes through their repetition – in my view, this maps well into the ideas of traits and properties as understood by collectors of collectibles. I’ve tried to introduce novice collectors to the way that more professional curators engage with my work – for instance, the San Francisco MOMA initially purchased five pieces from my first project (Suburbia Mexicana), two from Carpoolers, and now, fifty from 20th Century Photographs. This establishes each work in the greater context of the story I’m telling and allows the museum to highlight the parts of it they consider to be especially important – in effect allowing the curator to take part in reflecting their own version of the narrative.
What advice do you have for new photographers coming into the space?
The biggest thing, in my view, would be to treat this as another venue to develop your career as an artist. The NFT world can be an excellent place to extend your current portfolio, but you still need to build relationships, do projects, publish collections, and create exhibitions. Your work will always be valued in the bigger picture of your overall career, so take the time to consider the message of your work beyond the aesthetics. Many collectors here are looking for up and coming artists to place early bets on – you need to show up ready to take your work as seriously as they do.
Morning Drop, Republished with permission