When Time Magazine asked British-American artist David Gamble to photograph Stephen Hawking in 1988, no one could have predicted how instrumental the resulting photograph would be. Now, over 30 years later, Gamble is partnering with NFT art dealer Morphy to launch an NFT with an exclusive unlockable containing an in-depth audio interview with Gamble recalling the intimate photoshoot.
Emerald Arguelles: Can you discuss your beginning stages of photography?
David Gamble: I grew up loving pop art and photography. My own photography practice took off at Ealing Art College in the 1980s. I got picked up by The Observer in London, then I started working for LIFE, The New Yorker, and major magazines around the world. All of these assignments were photographing people on location. It was great because the magazines let me make any picture I wanted, and playing in bands in Cambridge in the 1970s for ten years had taught me how to improvise and think clearly in any given moment.
EA: Can you discuss the day you photographed Stephen Hawking?
DG: Time Magazine had commissioned me to photograph Stephen Hawking for the first full color page in the magazine’s history. Photographing is never how photo editors think it is, so I ignored their pages of direction. I met Hawking at his house in Cambridge. He was still married to his wife Jane and had a mean, matronly nurse who he didn’t like much. He made me run alongside him, trying to keep up with his super fast electric chair across busy roads to his lab in King’s College.
It was near lunch when we arrived and Hawking had to be fed with tubes in another room. It gave me time to sort of construct an image from objects I found in his room: a photo of Einstein, an engraving of Isaac Newton, a handwritten piece of music, and a poster he had of the view from the moon looking at Earth. He came back and I asked him to position in front of the blackboard.
On his computer screen, he said: no music, no moon, no Einstein. I made him a deal. I’d take the music out but he had to do a couple of pictures with the other objects. I took Polaroids to check lighting and composition, before shooting on film. I was using a 4×5 wooden plate camera.
EA: Can you discuss that experience and how the meaning of the image has changed over time?
DG: Time Magazine published the photo in 1988. Unknown to me, it was entered into the World Press Awards in Holland, where it won an award and later an American Photo of the Year Award. Hawking’s secretary called me and asked if he could use the picture for the book cover of A Brief History Of Time. I think it sold 27 million copies worldwide with that cover, which is crazy to think about.
The photo is constantly being requested for publications all over the world to this day. It’s become an iconic picture of Hawking, the same way we all remember one image of Einstein. It’s also in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.
EA: Can you share your decision to create an NFT and what the process was?
DG: It seemed obvious to me that if I was going to start creating work in the crypto metaverse, then I had to start with Stephen Hawking. His work reflects the science of the 21st Century: quantum physics, string theory, time, space, and black holes. It felt only right that he exist in the crypto metaverse, too.
It was important to me that only one edition should exist of this NFT. It’s like giving the crypto metaverse a god. It really doesn’t matter if I never sell this NFT. For me, I created a portrait of a genius with my narrative of his place in our world of science now and in the future, from Newton to Einstein to Hawking.
EA: Can you explain what an NFT is?
GG: I’ll attempt to give a brief and somewhat non-technical answer, as it would apply to those most interested in the contemporary art world. An “art NFT”—because NFT’s will eventually be legal records at courthouses, car titles, proof of ownership of high-end bourbons, etc.—is basically a digital asset represented by an image, video, sound, what have you, which ideally holds value as a form of cryptocurrency, mostly Ethereum at this point, via a smart contract.
Much like fine art is seen as a value-holding investment, though it does go up and down as it is part of a market, so are NFTs. By now most people understand that NFT stands for non-fungible token: a digital token on a blockchain, like Bitcoin or Ethereum. That’s about where the similarities begin and end. The biggest difference is that an NFT is unique. One BTC or one ETH will always equal one BTC or one ETH. It does not matter which one you have, much like trading a dollar for a dollar with someone. But you would probably not equally trade a Hockney painting for another Hockney painting. That’s how I would explain an NFT and its value.
EA: How can an NFT be beneficial to artists?
GG: I think an easier question would be: How are they not? There are so many different use cases we could run through, but I’ll try my best to explain.
Consider artists’ royalties built into smart contracts to start with. This is the technical stuff behind the JPEG that you can’t see. It’s part of the reason the “I can just right click and save” argument is so uninformed. There’s so much going on under the hood, so to speak. You can take a 100 piece art show from the United States to Basel to Tokyo in real time by typing in an Ethereum wallet address. Going a step further, you could run an art opening in those three cities at the exact same time, and if one of the pieces sells in Tokyo, it will immediately, in real time, payout to the artist, show it’s no longer for sale, and could then be put back up for resale by the new owner—all, quite literally, in an instant.
Or imagine an artist is moving from LA to Moscow. Would you rather ship 50 large scale paintings or log into your ETH wallet when you get there? This doesn’t have to mean the end of physical art. NFTs are a compliment to physical art.
Take what David Gamble and I are doing with some of his older work from the 1980s, for example. We’re minting those photos, which means we’re tokenizing them: they’re being recorded on a blockchain and will forever have provenance and uniqueness. When a piece resells in the secondary market, the royalties will immediately auto-populate in Gamble’s ETH wallet. The traditional art world needs to take notice of this. It’s changed the game and will continue to do so.
EA: Can you discuss the history of NFT’s?
GG: I think I probably could, but I’m not going to! First off, I think it would bore your readership to death and I don’t want to do that. Also, I’m not a tech historian.
What I can do, and what I think might be of more interest, is give you a rough timeline and then everyone can pick and choose what they want to dive further into:
2012–2013: Colored Coins.
2016: Trading cards and Rare Pepes on Counterparty.
2017: Rare Pepes on Ethereum.
2017: Cryptopunks (this is where it gets really interesting).
2017: Crypto Kitties by Dappers Labs, which later blew up with NBA Top Shot. OpenSea marketplace started around that time.
2018: This is around when SuperRare got started I believe.
At present, just the other day, Coinbase announced they are opening a marketplace of their own. Imagine the number of new users who are going to be introduced into the NFT space. I think people will begin to ask themselves if they want NFTs or physical art? How many hours a day does someone, for better or worse, stare into various screens? If someone is going to buy “stuff” as a consumer, why not buy something that both feels beautiful and also acts as a store of value?
EA: How did you get started/interested in NFT’s?
GG: I studied IT as an undergraduate in the mid to late 1990s. I’ve always been interested in various types of technology. After doing an MA in London at King’s College, studying at Courtauld Institute and Tate Modern, I then worked at the Paul Stolper Gallery from around 2003 to 2005, and eventually I got a job at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver on the business side of operations.
In 2014, I started a contemporary arts themed cocktail bar and restaurant in downtown New Orleans. I got into Bitcoin around that time or just before it. This consumed my life up until the COVID-19 pandemic came into play. A few months into the pandemic, I knew I needed to reinvent myself. With all the new time on my hands stuck at home with a shutdown restaurant, I came across an article about the Hashmasks NFT project. See, right there I’m showing just how OG I’m not. Figuring out how to buy an NFT was like learning a new language. After that, I watched anything on Youtube I could find about the space and read everything I could.
Once I felt comfortable with my understanding of the tech and that new world, I approached Gamble about bringing his work to the blockchain. I had purchased a few of his Warhol photos, and we developed a friendship over the years as a result. After a few chats he said he was in.
That about brings us to the present day. I founded Morphy, which works in partnership with world class fine artists, like Gamble, minting, and sometimes animating their physical works, turning them into unique digital tokens on the Ethereum blockchain, providing provenance and immutability. I’m very excited to continue serving artists in the process, strategy, and management of positioning their fine art in the crypto market.
David Gamble: https://www.davidgamble.net/