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Emily Ratajkowski is selling an NFT at Christie's
Emily Ratajkowski, an actress, on the roof of her apartment in Los Angeles, July 21, 2015. Elizabeth Lippman/The New York Times.

by Kate Dwyer

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In an effort to reestablish “authority” over the usage of her likeness, Emily Ratajkowski, a model and writer, is minting a nonfungible token, or NFT, which will be auctioned at Christie’s on May 14. The piece will be titled “Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution.”

As Ratajkowski chronicled in a widely read essay published in The Cut last fall, she’d been surprised to find out, in 2014, that a nude photograph of her was hanging in the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. As part of his “New Portraits” series, artist Richard Prince had taken one of her Instagram photos and printed it on a large canvas, priced at $90,000.

Ratajkowski tried to buy the piece but a Gagosian employee bought it for himself. After contacting Prince’s studio directly, though, she was able to obtain a second “Instagram painting” of herself, featuring a photo from her first appearance in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. She had been paid $150 for the shoot, she wrote, and a “couple grand” when the issue was published. She and her boyfriend at the time bought the piece for $81,000; when they broke up, she paid her ex $10,000 for a smaller “study” that Prince’s studio had given her.

The image attached to the NFT is a digital composite showing Ratajkowski, photographed in her New York apartment, posing in front of the Prince painting that hangs in her Los Angeles home. (To remind: a nonfungible token is the metadata associated with the image file, allowing the file to be bought or sold like a physical piece of art.)

Instead of cash-based currency, NFTs are purchased using cryptocurrency like bitcoins or ether, and the transactions are permanently recorded on the respective currency’s blockchain, which functions like a ledger. Ratajkowski is using the platform OpenSea to add her NFT to the Ethereum blockchain, but her NFT will be for sale in U.S. dollars, and the fund transfer will happen “off-chain,” a Christie’s spokesperson said. There is no reserve, or starting, price on the piece.

In March, after artist Beeple’s $69.3 million NFT sale at Christie’s, talent agents started encouraging their celebrity clients to participate in the NFT “money grab,” Ratajkowski said in an interview. Brands and cryptocurrency brokers contacted her directly, she said, offering her 20% to 60% of profits for an NFT featuring her likeness. “I had this bad feeling in my stomach about that way of approaching it,” she said, so she decided to develop her own project — following another prominent model, Kate Moss.

As Ratajkowski browsed NFT marketplaces like OpenSea, Foundation and SuperRare, she came across bouncing smiley-face GIFs and 3D renderings, thinking to herself: “Why are they NFTs? They don’t need to be NFTs.”

Because an NFT is less about the image itself and more the concept of ownership over a digital file, Ratajkowski realized the medium could be an effective way to make a statement about ownership — by appropriating Prince’s appropriation of her photo.

“As somebody who has built a career off of sharing my image, so many times — even though that’s my livelihood — it’s taken from me and then somebody else profits off of it,” she said. Every time her NFT is resold, she will receive an undisclosed cut. “To me, this digital marketplace is a way to communicate this specific idea that couldn’t exist in a different way.”

Prince, who did not respond to messages sent through Gagosian and his studio manager, has been using other artists’ work in his own work since the 1980s, and he made a name for himself by taking photos of existing photographs. His work has long been controversial, and Ratajkowski is not the first subject to take issue with the “New Portraits” series of Instagram appropriations.

In 2015, Selena Mooney, the founder of the erotic website SuicideGirls, sold $90 copies of a piece by Prince that features one of her Instagram posts, with proceeds going to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

“If I had a nickel for every time someone used our images without our permission in a commercial endeavor I’d be able to spend $90,000 on art,” Mooney wrote on Instagram. Another subject, sex educator Zoë Ligon, told Artnet she felt “violated” by Prince’s use of her selfie in 2019.

Prince has also been sued at least five times over copyright infringement relating to the “New Portraits” series, The New York Times has reported, including two high-profile lawsuits filed by two photographers, Donald Graham and Eric McNatt. McNatt claimed that Prince misused a photo of Kim Gordon he shot for Paper magazine. According to court documents, he was paid between $50 and $100 for the shoot.

Art critic Jerry Saltz, who called “New Portraits” “genius trolling” in a 2014 review, worked with Kenny Schachter, an artist and art-world gadfly, to produce an NFT of the disputed Gordon image in early April. Gordon chimed in and wrote that she wondered if McNatt “will sue you too?” on Schachter’s Instagram post.

Casey Reas, an artist and professor at UCLA who has dealt in NFTs for five years, noted they could be of particular appeal to content creators, whose images are so often replicated far beyond their control.

“With things in the physical, material world, ownership is pretty clear, but with digital files, it’s always been sort of a fuzzy area,” he said. “NFTs allow one person to have clear, public ownership over a digital thing, like an image or a video.”

However, those pieces of media can still go viral. “The work itself is not scarce,” Reas said. “That image can still circulate around the internet, but ownership is the thing that the NFT allows somebody to claim.” Like a physical painting, the original artist still retains copyright; unlike a physical painting, every time an NFT changes hands, the original artist gets royalties.

To Ratajkowski there’s another potential dividend: moral justice. She said that after her article was published, models started reaching out to discuss “not just their image being used, but their bodies being misused, and used for profit in ways they didn’t consent to,” she said, a topic she explores in an upcoming essay collection, “My Body,” which Metropolitan Books is planning to publish in October. Across fashion, film and the art world, she added, young women are made to “feel like they don’t need to be paid properly.”

And she said cryptocurrency experts warned her: “People are going to use your image in NFTs in one way or another, so you might as well make one.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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