This is the most expensive portrait never sold

Jul 22, 2023

Andrew Miller

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

This is the most expensive portrait never sold

Jul 22, 2023

Andrew Miller

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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I was shocked to learn recently that a portrait I took almost ten years ago might have an unpaid agreement worth $6,000,000.00 today. I did know the photos would be important, that HE would be important. I could not have known how very right I was.

In January 2014, I took the first professional portraits of Vitalik Buterin, the teen inventor of the world’s second-largest cryptocurrency, Ethereum. I believed strongly that the 19-year-old Vitalik Buterin was altruistic, and you could feel history being made when he spoke. I recall the hairs standing up on my arms and a shiver in my spine.

Now 29, at 27 years old, Vitalik was worth more than 1.3 Billion USD, making him wealthier at a younger age than Steve Jobs. He may also be the only person in the world to deliberately and publicly delete $6.7 billion dollars for reasons of integrity.
His continuing commentary and contributions have earned him the title “Prince of Crypto” on the cover of TIME magazine in 2022.

I’m not oblivious to the presumably normal appearance of the above portrait. Read on, and you will learn how my portraits are unique, and no one seems to have replicated the same feat to this day. A quick Google search for his name is usually all it takes for someone to understand how my portraits differ.

I vividly recall my first impression of Vitalik. He stood with a stooped posture as if apologetically matching the height of those around him. His eyes shifted rapidly, alternating between anxiety and calculation. He dressed like any teen at the local comic shop with disheveled clothing more suitable for high school than the office. It was apparent that he would look more comfortable playing video games than dealing with business people. I have since read that Vitalik is autistic and that Vitalik projected abnormal behavior was very obvious.

As a gamer geek myself, having spent many hours at geeky conventions, he was one of my people. I know that people transform when they talk about what excites them, so when he spent time educating me on his ideas of the future, the anxious teen evaporated. His posture straightened, and his gaze lifted, looking at a future only he could see. He exuded confidence briefly. The transformation was significant, and I could see genuine potential for a photo. Most of all, I admired his authenticity.

You don’t take a photograph, you make it.

Ansel Adams

I wanted to be the first to photograph him as he transitioned into a professional. I wanted to bring out the best of Vitalik’s character, seen only during intimate conversations. It was my ultimate intention to help him gain a powerful tool for self-branding. I wanted to invest in his gamble at changing the world. If he was successful, I might have seen licensing and copyright negotiations. So I sent an email.

The offer was simple, but execution was not. The cash-strapped teen accepted my proposal hours after he announced his invention to the world, and it would take many emails to coax Vitalik into my vision of him as an inspiring leader. He wanted something more nature-oriented and casual, but I envisioned the journey of the photos from the camera all the way to a business magazine cover. We settled on shooting at the office where we met and planned for two background and lighting setups.

It was all at my expense, and I set no limits on my own effort or spending, and the shoot became the most intentional production of my career. I was sure I would receive calls from magazines and newspapers in the following months. I spent the days before the shoot organizing with the creative makeup artist Jocelyn Santos-Thompson and the amazing photographer Kareen Mallon, who acted as photo assistant. I chose Jocelyn for her talent, her soft kind demeanor, and the magical quality her presence brings into the room. Kareen was chosen because she embodies chill while being quick-witted and demonstrating exceptional talent.

Together with a medium format PhaseOne IQ140 digital back and 2x Hensel Porty L 1200 lighting kits, a ring flash, and a variety of softboxes and backgrounds, we set out to make some portrait history.

Man plans, and God laughs.

Yiddish Proverb

On the day of the shoot, my heart fell when Vitalik walked into the room in a disheveled state. He was unshaven, breaking out in acne from his recent stressful public appearances, wearing naturally distressed clothing, and professing limited time. All our conversations about prepping for the shoot he had tossed out the window.

I could not have been happier to have my team to help me execute quickly. I adapted by taking off my own dress shirt and fitting it on the young crypto prince. In the briefing before the shoot, I stressed the need to have Vitalik so comfortable and pleased that his resting face would be a soft smile. I decided early on that I wanted to emulate the posing and expressions of the Mona Lisa because it did not demand too much of Vitalik while capturing an inviting yet enigmatic expression on his face. It was also a cheeky way of me saying that I had finished my 10,000 hours and was infusing my full intention into my craft.

One cannot easily direct a person of Vitalik’s disposition to make a natural expression. What one can do is create an environment in which he does not have to consider his expression at all. Introverts often need an anchor person to lock onto, and Jocelyn was given this role. I told her Vitalik liked talking about WoW (World of Warcraft), blockchain, and his father. I gave her free reign to pry him on these subjects while she spent a good amount of time softly touching his face and smiling at him while he answered her questions. During the shoot, she sat beside the camera, continuing the conversation with Vitalik.

I noticed the odd watch on his wrist, which did not have any digits at all. I inquired, and it turned out to be a gift from his father, Dmitry, that tells time in binary. He was warm and misty-eyed when discussing the gift, so a point was made to display it proudly in the shoot. The shoot was a victory from the start as we sculpted him into his best self.

The result was portraits that revealed a calm and self-assured Vitalik, giving him an approachable and trusting look. I was entirely satisfied but had to conclude a few more shots and talk business.

A second portrait of Vitalik was taken for posterity to document Vitalik in his normal garb, and then Ethereum Co-Founder Anthony Di Iorio insisted on a portrait for himself. Di Iori seemed to posture himself as the boss of Ethereum as a primary investor. During the shoot, Anthony hovered in the background, supervising and taking quick advantage to insist on a few portraits for himself.

I was shooting live to my laptop with Capture One for their immediate preview and approval. The co-founders were very happy with the shoot. During the review, I described file delivery and reminded them for a second time that the portraits were for personal use on blogs. I encouraged them to send inquiries for a license my way.

This is where things got interesting in hindsight. They asked if they could pay me in their forthcoming crypto for copyright when they launched their initial coin offering within a year. I conceded so long it was equivalent to $1200.00 CAD for the 2 photo sets, the dinner I paid for beforehand, the premium equipment, the makeup artist, and the assistant. Further down, I detail the staggering amount that would be worth today.

The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

The resulting payout in the theoretical currency never came. Everything ended abruptly after that. I emailed the portraits to Vitalik and Anthony in early February. Other than a brief rendezvous a few weeks later at the Vancouver Confest 2014, we did not cross paths again. We exchanged some emails about doing more photoshoots in exchange for their forthcoming currency, but life took us in different directions, and we soon forgot about each other. No longer connected to their industry, I remained oblivious for years about their success but especially oblivious about the copyright abuse of my images.

It is unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the scope of the role these photos would play in the public discourse. They appear on numerous media platforms, news articles, podcasts, websites, derivative fan art, and memes, and are being sold as knock-off NFT’s. CNBC violated the copyright on four occasions as recently as May 2022. My portraits appear to have been instrumental in shaping the positive perception of Vitalik and contributed in some small part to Ethereum’s rise.

A brand designed with my portrait as its face

Despite it all being 100% unauthorized usage and lack of accreditation, these portraits have become deeply ingrained in the community’s conversation surrounding the young inventor.

Today I am battling to gain attribution and recognition after the portraits became famous, leaving my name unspoken. The history of what I did for Vitalik was untold, and anyone looking back can see its value given the timing and what transpired afterwards. Any joy I took in seeing my photos fulfilling the role I originally intended was quelled when I learned that they had been used commercially by the Ethereum co-founders, who never fulfilled their end of the negotiation.

Given that their product launched at $0.30 a coin, their offer would have been between 3000-4000 ETH coins and somewhere in excess of $6,000,000.00 at the time of this writing.

I prefer to think the teen Vitalik just didn’t get all this professional copyright talk and left everything to his investor Anthony Di Iorio, who managed the business side of things. Anthony left the project after infighting in 2015. Emails have emerged where a co-founder was found to have submitted my portraits to magazines for publication. I’ve sent emails asking for their side of the story.

About the Author

Andrew Miller is a Canadian-based photographer with 24 years of commercial and creative work. His photos of Burning Man, circus, innovative executives, and bodypaint characters are known around the world.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official stance of DIYP or its editorial team.

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One response to “This is the most expensive portrait never sold”

  1. Michael Elliott Avatar
    Michael Elliott

    Ah, such are the vagaries of young, visionary inventors, they tend to be on the asshole side of the spectrum. It doesn’t help, but I do wish you the best of luck in reclaiming the legacy of what you created.

    Michael Elliott Photography