Lawrence Horn stopped dropping acid in 1971, a year after LSD was listed as a Schedule I drug. Realizing he couldn’t do drugs without repercussions nor “sustain a yogi lifestyle,” and seeking an alternate form of spiritual expression, he purchased his first camera, an Olympus OM-1 35mm, in 1973. Several years later, he began experimenting with colour infrared film in an attempt to transpose his previous “transcendent” experiences within a new urban reality—the East Village art scene amidst a kinetic phase of cultural transformation.
On a late Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, Lawrence Horn, in a warm and ecstatic ambience, surrounded by his team of enthusiastic under-30 millennials, raised a toast in celebration of their first NFT drop of sixty unique digitized photo slides, which sold out within the first three hours.
A 78-year-old native New Yorker and former literature and philosophy professor at Cooper Union, Horn felt uneasy but hopeful: “To wait around this long without freaking out that I am old with no place to go, no backup, no family.” Nearly a year ago, he could not imagine that his life would change so drastically—from living in meagre conditions reliant on food stamps to being an artist whose works now sell for 0.25 Ethereum, equivalent to approximately $900 USD, per slide.
For decades, Horn kept his works in storage, showing them to no one. Then in the summer of 2020, he met a young woman in Tompkins Square Park. After having a short conversation about psychedelics, Horn decided to show her some of his photographs. “I didn’t know something would happen, but I kind of suspected something would happen,” he said. “I always said one break, one person. It took a little longer than I thought but it was worth waiting.”
The fortuitous encounter would lead to the creation of The [Digital] Archive, an online platform that focuses on archiving analog photography onto the Ethereum blockchain to support the utility of NFTs. “The first time I ever saw [the photographs]—they were colourful, but I didn’t really register that there was that kind of depth,” said Ryan Hall, the lead archiver, who was introduced to Horn’s work by his roommate. “We talked for months; for hours, and hours, and hours. I was just sitting there, listening to him, and taking notes. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was listening to one of the greatest artists alive.”
In 1963, as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Horn was introduced to LSD and mescaline—psychedelic, recreational drugs that had risen in popularity in the counterculture. According to Horn, these hallucinogenic experiences opened “inter-spiritual things,” which later defined the course and style of his photography.
Soon after graduating from Columbia University with a master’s degree in Literature and Continental Philosophy in 1967, Horn moved to East Village and became involved with yoga and spiritual practices, including the Swami Muktananda’s meditation program. After receiving shaktipat initiation, Horn believes he achieved a level of spiritual enlightenment, “I had the drugs and then I had a shaktipat meditation, so the third eye locked the psychedelics in the right place.”
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the then-impoverished East Village neighbourhood of New York was transforming into an experimental art hub, where emerging galleries, restaurants, and bars showcased works by young, eccentric, neo-expressionist, and divergent artists. Some of the biggest names of 20th-century art and music came out of this non-traditional and anti-commercial art scene; artists like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Madonna, and countless others.
“I photographed the local artists, who lived in the Lower East Side,” said Horn recalling the visual art scene of the early ’80s and his budding friendship with some of the gallery and club owners, who invited him to photograph shows and exhibitions. “I photographed Warhol and Basquiat, Keith Haring, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, and Martin Wong,” said Horn, whose list includes many other prominent names. “I only spent four or five months doing that. I didn’t do it as an artist, because I was a teacher in college. It wasn’t a hobby, but it was a way of being non-academic.”
At the time, Arnold Wechsler, an abstract painter, helped him to get into a group show at Limbo Lounge, a nightclub that was refurbished into a gallery and performance space. In March 1984, Horn exhibited one of his experimental works, Infrared Dog on Central Park Snow Field, 1978, a 16×20″ photo montage mounted on paper with an ink drawing of a profile of a dog.
Horn continued exhibiting and publishing his works here and there while teaching History and Philosophy at Cooper Union and bearing witness to the dramatic shifts in the arts and culture in New York. In a personal artistic shift, he decided to concentrate solely on colour infrared film photography, delving into an esoteric world to capture the light frequencies that were not visible but could be felt as heat—the body of work he kept in storage for decades. “There was no gallery that I could walk into and assume that they would have collectors that are willing to buy the works,” said Horn. “And it’s expensive to put up colour prints in a good gallery for an unknown artist. So I didn’t do it.”
Infrared films were first introduced in the 1930s, but their popularization began in the ’60s when Kodak introduced 35mm false-colour infrared film. Although shooting analog infrared film was expensive, unpredictable, and required a completely different approach due to its complexity, the final product was equally unique, capturing heatwaves from the red end of the spectrum, invisible to the naked eye.
As Horn explained, he chose a heat-sensitive, infrared film to recreate his prior psychedelic experiences, which gave him access to an extended range of chromatic frequencies. “These photos were able to capture the spectral effects of the interaction between invisible solar radiation and visible reality.”
Fascinated with all the visual effects he could achieve from the film, Horn started adding colour, polarizing and crystalizing filters to create a secret psychedelic universe captured on analog. “You magnify the slide four times, all of a sudden there is an inner world that comes out, this slide has another world inside of it,” he said.
While Horn travelled around the country and documented people, nature, events, and urban landscapes, he always remained captivated by the architecture of New York City. “The World Trade Center was so fascinating and so horrendous—they were like strands or fingers coming from the earth and just going up,” he said, recalling the Twin Towers. “It aligned beautifully perspective-wise. You could shoot 1000 feet in the air and get very beautiful effects because the light hit the building in different degrees of heat, so I realized this was an iconic sculpture that I could learn a lot from.”
His vast photography collection consists of over seven thousand slides that are carefully organized and are now being digitized by his team. In addition to their historical value, Horn’s hypnotizing photographs with their enigmatic vibrancy present a portal to a parallel universe.
In 1984, Horn was married and his artistic endeavours took a back seat. “You cannot have two artists in one family. It’s too hard,” he said. “I [had] travelled the whole country, I didn’t need to do it anymore. So, I just stopped.”
Horn hasn’t taken a single photo since 1986. The screen saver on his phone is an image from the enigmatic Black Hills and Badlands, from his last series of photographs taken in South Dakota. “The Black Hills were sacred to the [Indigenous people] and so the spirits that they worshipped or encountered were still there for me. That’s what attunement is, the ability to contextualize many layers of the unseen.”
When Horn was introduced to the idea of selling his works as NFTs, he was skeptical and somewhat resistant. “The first NFTs I saw were monkeys, pirates, and weird animals. So I didn’t like the original thing because I was afraid the audience was just trending into speculative cartoons,” said Horn, who now sees the potential of expanding and exploring different ways to showcase his works in the digital space.
“He didn’t really believe much was going to happen,” said Ryan Hall, who is now the co-owner of Horn’s collection. “I do believe that people who have enough vision to see the incredible potential within the technology behind NFTs are the same type of visionaries who would be able to see the significance of Lawrence’s work.”
In 2021, Hall founded an artist management firm called Bustany Agency. While working on his first NFT project, Hall was introduced to Margarita Kiryushkina and Jessica Tatievski, the founders of Neue Projects, an artist-focused consultancy firm that bridges traditional contemporary art with NFTs. Together they created The [Digital] Archive platform dedicated to digitizing and archiving Horn’s colour and infrared photography.
“When we first met Lawrence, he was living in terrible conditions with a bipolar roommate, who suffered from alcoholism,” said Kiryushkina, a strategist at The [Digital] Archive. “Right after the drop, we moved him to a new apartment, we got him a new phone, glasses, and clothes.”
Despite the age gap, Horn has enormous trust in his young and progressive team, who saw the potential of promoting his work in the burgeoning market of NFTs. “Since Lawrence doesn’t have a name in the art world, the traditional art market would have hindered the potential of showing his works [in a gallery],” said Kiryushkina, who believes that there was no better way to introduce Horn’s work to the world but as NFTs. “Today, people who are a part of the revolutionary NFT ecosystem are aligned with Lawrence’s vision.”
“There is a nostalgia factor and purity to the fact that it was constructed outside of a digital medium, which itself is fascinating and ancient, but it is also timeless,” said Vince Jefferds, a cinematographer, who is currently directing a documentary film about Horn. “A lot of his pictures are very similar to AI-generated imagery despite it being on analog film and similar to other art that is popular right now.”
Coming from the anti-commercial art scene of the ’80s, Horn didn’t intend his work to be commercial. “I just intended to generate images that generate energy, meditation, transformation, and eventually illumination,” he said. “But [NFTs] will generate recognition and sales and allow us to move it to interior design, books, and galleries.”
At Horus Cafe near Tompkins Square Park, Horn, together with his team, enjoyed a genuine moment of relief after months of preparation and doubt. While still in disbelief that an accidental encounter with a stranger in the park would break the decades-long detachment from his work, Horn finally seemed to regain the confidence in his art. Worried about his upcoming relocation, he said that he was planning to find a place with a convenient commute to the park, “Tompkins Square Park is my oasis, it’s my garden of Eden. Here, I met most things that have changed my life forever.”