With 34 stories for National Geographic, 16 books, and 2 documentary films over 40 years, Michael Yamashita is one of photography’s most experienced travelers. He is the first person of color to be a regular contributing photographer for National Geographic, starting with the magazine in 1979. His awards and accolades include the Pictures of the Year competition, Photo District News, the New York Art Directors Club, and the Asian American Journalists Association.
"You Can't Sell Photography As NFTs:" Reflections On a National Geographic Veteran's Year in NFTs
Yamashita’s approach to photography is similar to his strategy as a traveler:
“It is a photographer’s job to capture the subject in ways never done before.”
Thus, Yamashita begins his assignments with a thorough review of any prior photography of his intended subject. Similar to his research of many of the obscure places he has visited, there was not a clear, well trodden path to follow for photographers in NFTs. This article serves as a year in review for Yamashita’s NFT journey, highlighting his releases, travels, key connections and learnings. You can view more of his work on his Superrare.
Release #1: M.Y. EARTH
Yamashita’s first NFT collection was launched in the summer of 2021 with the Origin Protocol, and features Yamashita’s most commercially successful photograph, “Sea of Monks” This particular version is called “Heedless of the Snow” and features expressive faces brought to life with AI technology. At the time, it was not believed by many in the community that photography could sell as an NFT, and adding an animated touch to the iconic 1 of 1 in the collection seemed sensible. Another notable NFT in the collection, Jomon Sugi (縄文杉), features an ancient cedar on Yakushima Island, Japan. A two edition NFT, it was photographed in 1993 on analog film, predating the digital era. It is the only regular, unanimated photograph in the collection. The Jomon Sugi is one of the oldest trees in the world, the majority of which were logged over 300 years ago during the Edo period.
M.Y. EARTH also features 3D character models by Zoe Winters, who has previously done collaborations with Topps for a Hideki Matsui baseball card. “Bloom,” a sphere brought alive with springtime vibes, and “Reflections on a Golden Pond,” a cube constructed by 6 photographs from Jiuzhaigou National Park’s 5 color pond, set against an AI generated background. Both are editions of two, and are Yamashita’s first artist collaborations. Zoe also added snow after effects to Heedless in the Snow 1/1, Window to my World edition of 10, and The Child in Yellow, edition of 5. Zoe’s latest exhibition, curated by Foreign Family Collective and Victor Mosquera, featured her new animated work “Bubble Yum.” She joined FVCKRENDER, Woosung Kang, and other artists at this showing in New York City.
RELEASE #2: NFTs for Saving Afghans
Yamashita visited Afghanistan in the spring of 2000, following the 13th century route of Marco Polo and meeting with members of the Northern Alliance. The drawdown of what is notoriously known as “The Forever War” in Afghanistan occurred in the summer of 2021, and many allies and friends of the United States were left in a precarious position as troops and support staff began leaving the country. NFTs for Saving Afghans, a collection of works from 30 different artists, was launched in an effort to assist in the evacuation effort. Yamashita donated 4 photographs to the cause, helping to raise over $16,000 for No One Left Behind, a charitable organization focused on providing asylum and aid to Afghan interpreters left behind in the war.
RELEASE #3: The Four Seasons of Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟)
The Four Seasons of Jiuzhaigou captures the place where Yamashita’s obsession with the Tibetan Plateau began. According to local legends, the 118 lakes of Jiuzhaigou were formed by the scattered shards of a mirror that was dropped by a Tibetan goddess. Yamashita calls Jiuzhaigou his “personal vision of paradise,” and first visited the park in 2007. It was here that he first heard of the ancient trade route known as Chamagudao, which inspired his later journeys into Tibet.
Containing 61 photographs, the Four Seasons of Jiuzhaigou was minted on August 13th, 2021 on Cargo, a platform founded by Sean Papanikolas where artists could launch their own custom ERC721 smart contract within the UI, similar to what most artists use Manifold for today. A batch minting method called ERC2309 was used, allowing all 61 NFTs to be minted in a single $48 transaction. The collection was one of the earliest collections, if not the first, to include a comprehensive list of technical photography traits in the metadata, including Camera, Exposure, Focal Length, ISO, Lens, and Shot Angle. There are also several environmental traits, including one to indicate photographs taken prior to the severe earthquake that struck the area in 2017, which forever altered many of the most scenic waterfalls in the park.
RELEASE #4: Yamashita Gan
A surprise free airdrop to holders of the Four Seasons of Jiuzhaigou and M.Y. Earth, Yamashita Gan consists of 69 image collages created from Yamashita’s photographs using Generative Adversarial Networks, or GAN. The metadata within each NFT shows which location the photograph is sourced from, as well as the subject.
The locations include Jiuzhaigou, Daisetsuzan, Ojiya, Wulingyuan, Xilinhaute, the Arashyima bamboo forest and the Taklimakan desert. Animal subjects are also noted with a unique property, including horses and Asian carp. Since the metadata was available prior to minting, Yamashita GAN NFTs were one of the first collections minted in order of rarity, so the first token contains the most uncommon traits.
MEANDERING IN MOROCCO
Scouting for future photography workshops, Yamashita traveled to Morocco in November of 2021. As one of the first countries to open up after the pandemic, Morocco is a choice location for both amateur and professional photographers to capture exotic scenes of ambitious artisans, bustling bazaars, and the mysterious and rugged Sahara desert. Yamashita spent a few weeks wandering around out of the normal territory. Most interesting to Yamashita was the desert landscapes, of which he is intimately familiar after his numerous treks throughout the Taklamakan desert of China’s Tarim basin.
TWO TRIPS DOWNTOWN - NFTNYC 2021 & ART BASEL
Art Basel and NFT NYC in late 2021 were highlights for Yamashita and his team. Connecting with notable photographers, collectors and fans for the first time, a number of key relationships were forged. In New York, John Knopf was a memorable connection, with his confidence and optimism about the future of the NFT space serving as encouragement.
John would later go on to feature Yamashita’s Jiuzhaigou works at the first NFT photography exhibition, hosted within the WAGMIAMI event by Entropy and Kanon. Yamashita and his team also convened in Miami to celebrate the Four Seasons of Jiuzhaigou collection selling out, with a final, exciting sweep of the primary and secondary by Hong Kong based collector Whale Shark.
RELEASE #5: TIBET: IN SEARCH OF SHANGRI-LA
Released on Nifty Gateway in January of 2022, the release consisted of a “blind mint” of 69 photographs, and 8 NFT bundles which contain multiple photographs in a single token. The drop sold out in under 30 minutes. The metadata of this collection contains the year that the photos were taken, as well as a special entry for images that have been featured in Yamashita’s books, including his 2012 and 2020 second edition release Shangri:La [along the tea road to Lhasa.] The Tibet collection was a natural progression after releasing Jiuzhaigou, where Yamashita’s fascination with Tibet began. It was in Jiuzhaigou that he first heard of Chamagudao, a web of roads, trails and pathways ascending into the Tibetan plateau.
The book highlights Yamashita’s multiple treks throughout the ancient Chamagudao trade routes that provided imperial China with the horses needed to operate their empire and defend from Mongol incursions. In return, the Tibetans imported vast quantities of tea, which became a staple of their culinary culture.
With industrialization and modernization, life in Tibet is rapidly changing. Yamashita’s photographs provide a rare glimpse into Tibetan spirituality, culture and commerce, preserving its history in an unprecedented way.
VIEWING IN VENICE
In April, Yamashita’s work was featured at the 59th Venice Biennale. Curated by Cecelia Alemani, this year featured their first exhibition of art made into NFTs. In addition to being a panelist at the event, Yamashita was also on assignment. shooting for Sony Shanghai. He was accompanied by Farland Chang, who was shooting footage for his documentary “East Meets West,” a series focusing on Yamashita’s travels throughout the Silk Road. Venice was one of the main trading hubs of the ancient world, distributing Chinese luxury silks, Indian spices and other exotic wares to Europe and the Mediterranean.
Regarding his favorite city, Yamashita remarked: “Venice is like walking into a museum.”
Another memorable development from Yamashita’s trip to Venice was his rendezvous with Casey Coyle from Superrare and their European team. After meeting Casey at the Superrare exhibition at the SCOPE gallery during Art Basel 2021 in Miami, and seeing the gallery showing by one of his favorite photographers Reuben Wu, Yamashita was inspired to release a collection of his own on the platform. Diversifying across multiple venues to reach new audiences has always been one of Yamashita’s key strategies.
RELEASE #6: FACES OF ANKGOR
Released on Superrare in the spring of 2022, the Faces of Ankgor collection contains 27 photographs. 14 of the NFTs were gifted to Yamashita’s prior collectors, using a verifiably random method which utilized the Ethereum blockchain and Modulo equations. Four of the NFTs featured in the collection have appeared in Yamashita’s books, including Mekong: Mother of Waters (1995) and Zheng He (2006). Taken on Kodachrome film in 1991, these 4 photographs precede the digital era, with Kodachrome production discontinued in 2009. These traits, along with the traditional technical photography data, appear in the metadata of the collection.
Yamashita first photographed Angkor on assignment for National Geographic, and was the first Western photojournalist to visit the country since the retreat of the Khmer Rouge in 1989. The Bayon Temple Complex was built by King Jayavarman VII, who many historians believe is depicted in the over 200 carved faces that adorn the Temple. Other theories believe they represent Bodhisattvas — beings who have nearly reached nirvana but who remain to offer compassion and love to others.
SHOWINGS AT NFT NYC 2022 & DELAWARE ART MUSEUM
Yamashita attended several photography events during NFT NYC 2022, and had a busy schedule of gallery showings during the end of June. He was joined by his friend and fellow photographer Rick Smolan during the Rug Radio event, featuring photographers John Knopf, Drifter Shoots, Lindsay Burns and Ruff Draft. Despite the presence of the infamous Farokh, the event went off without a hitch, with an impressive spread of food, merch and speakers.
Yamashita’s photographs from his Tibet and Jiuzhaigou collections were shown at the Superchief gallery in SOHO during NFTNYC, curated by John Knopf and sponsored by Rug Radio and TIMEPieces, the highly successful NFT collective by TIME magazine. The collections were also shown at a private Delaware Art Museum event held by Brown Advisory in late June.
INNOVATION IN INDONESIA
Spearheaded in part by the Tahija foundation, the Eliminate Dengue Project Yokyakarta has had impressive results, with the New England Journal of Medicine reporting a reduction of cases of Dengue fever by 77%. Using Wolbachia technology, scientists introduced a mosquito with a strain of Dengue fever that eradicates the disease by breeding with local mosquitos. After a 6 year period, the trial was successful and Dengue fever was successfully eradicated in this area. Yamashita visited Yokyakarta, one of the test cities with a population of about half a million people, to document the mosquito eradication program.
A tremendously difficult assignment to photograph, Yamashita applied his classic National Geographic style, showcasing Indonesian culture, landscapes, and landmarks, accompanied by action shots inside the often treacherous insectariums. He was bitten numerous times visiting these mosquito breeding grounds, where they feed on live human blood from brave volunteers.
To add context to the collection, Yamashita captured shots of bustling traffic to emphasize the population density. He visited two major world heritage sites; the stunning Prambanan Hindu temple, and the 9th century Borobudur Buddhist temple complex. As a majority Muslim country, Yamashita also attended the Friday jumu’ah prayer, capturing beautiful mosque architecture and the colorful garments of the congregation.
LUXURY IN LONDON
Embarking on two assignments, Yamashita visited London late this summer, accompanied by Jordan Banks, a UK based photographer whom he met at the Street Week NFT photography meetup during NFT NYC. Tasked with photographing both the famous Four Seasons Hotel and Wentworth Club for their 100 year anniversaries, Yamashita spent considerable time researching prior photography shoots of these historic locations to ensure his choice of subject, angle and lighting was original and unique. The Wentworth Club was purchased by the Reignwood Group in 2014, and plans to host the BMW PGA championship in early September.
Shooting at the posh 5 star Four Seasons Hotel London at Ten Trinity Square, or any hotel at all, was a first for Yamashita. Formerly the headquarters of the Port of London authority, the prestigious building is located in the same vicinity as the London Bridge and Tower of London. His approach to this assignment was to focus on the attentive employees serving to meet the hotel’s standards of comfort and excellence, and environmental portraits to convey an air of finery and exclusivity.
SILK ROAD DOCUSERIES
Yamashita is the focus of a new documentary series, EASTMEETSWEST: Journeys Along the Silk Road. The 9-episode series is produced by Farland Chang, an Emmy-award winning journalist & professor hailing from Cornell & Columbia. Farland was inspired by Yamashita’s work as one of National Geographic’s legendary photographers. The series covers highlights of Yamashita’s 40 year career, especially retracing the epic journeys along the Silk Road of two of the world’s greatest explorers: Marco Polo by land and Zheng He by sea.
With Farland’s 30 years as a TV journalist in the US and Asia, including stints as a CNN anchor and NBC national correspondent, he wanted to apply the power of video & audio to amplify Yamashita’s timeless photography, books and first two documentaries. With this library of golden treasure, Farland would spend many years adding new video assets, such as capturing rare footage of the “master in action,” plus deep-dive interviews with Yamashita revealing what was “in his mind’s eye.”
And in this age of digital streaming and social media and multi-platforms, Farland also hopes to bring to life Yamashita’s priceless body of work, in fresh ways, on video, to audiences, new and old. Yamashita, and the docuseries was featured in an article by Lia Reichman in July, published by Asian American News.
One of Farland’s favorite quotes:
Traveling: it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.
- Ibn Battuta
Farland conceived of the East meets West passion project more than 15 years ago. He was intrigued after meeting Yamashita and studying his library of “living history,” his epic travels along the Silk Road and his role as one of National Geographic’s foremost global ambassadors. And like so many raised on National Geographic’s content, Farland was proud to support their mission “to illuminate and protect the wonders of our world.”
Finally, the shared roots. With Yamashita as a fellow journalist, educator, Asian American and product of both the East and West, Farland feels proud to support him in a common cause and powerful purpose. Farland also feels the series helps them make a difference as ambassadors bridging east and west, helping people learn about other cultures, encouraging us to explore, and fostering peace and understanding while protecting our planet.
Furthermore, living in this turbulent time of mistrust, misunderstanding and miscommunication and with so many challenges threatening our planet, Farland hopes the docuseries reminds us of our need to travel, learn and promote preservation & peace. Indeed, Marco Polo and Zheng He were not just among the world’s great explorers. They were also global educators helping west understand east and east understand west.
Another one of Farland’s favorite quotes:
Travel makes one modest. You see what a small place in the world you occupy.
- Gustave Flaubert
PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER MAGAZINE
An interview with Yamashita, conducted this summer by Robert Kiener, is featured in the July edition of Professional Photographer magazine, the official magazine for Professional Photographers of America. The 10 page spread highlights some of his most iconic images, and within the article he boasts:
“Thanks largely to National Geographic assignments over the past 40 years," Yamashita said. "I’ve amassed more images on Asia than anyone else in the world.”
A TRIP OUT WEST WITH SONY KANDO
In late August, Yamashita joined several other photographers in Sun Valley, Idaho for a retreat sponsored by Sony. He joined a panel where he and his peers discussed their successful utilization of blockchain technology as a medium to distribute their work, including J.N Silva, Monaris, and Dave Krugman. In attendance was Paul Nicklen, Yamashita’s friend and fellow National Geographic photographer renowned for his stunning wildlife photographs and extensive work in marine biology and conservation.
THE NEXT TREK
Yamashita’s travel plans include a visit to Singapore in late September to attend the Token 2049 crypto event and network with friends, fellow photographers and collectors. He is also hoping for an ease in travel restrictions in China and Japan, as he yearns to return to explore and discover new opportunities to build his extensive East Asia photography archive.
Readers of this article are among the first to know about his new upcoming book, focusing on a photographic history of China from a Western perspective. The work of four other photographers will be featured in this 5 volume series, which begins at the advent of photography itself in the 1800s. Yamashita is the only living photographer in the collection, and his work covers the time period from 1982 to the present.
The highlight of his year, Yamashita is proud to join so many incredible photographers in proving conclusively: You CAN sell photography as an NFT.
Yamashita’s ability to network, innovate, elevate up-and-coming photographers and advance environmental causes is an example for any aspiring photographer entering the NFT world to follow. His work has always been predicated on extensive research, and the innovations happening in NFTs have inspired him and his team to closely follow other photographers in the community as a source of inspiration. He plans to make occasional single 1/1 photograph releases exclusively on Superrare through the end of the year. Collectors of his work should always keep an eye out for opportunities to own more of his legendary archive, in appreciation for their loyalty and continued support.