In the Question Mark post below, I forgot to mention one more way in which photographers disqualify themselves for our TOP sales...by limiting their editions. I've looked at specific pictures by several photographers as possibilities, only to find that they're painted into a corner by a limited edition. I hate seeing that—obviously, it's a problem for a high-volume, low-price alternative model of selling prints.
Maybe I'm conditioned by years of reading GRUMP, David Vestal's iconoclasic, now-defunct newsletter, but I don't believe in limited editions for photography. It's a carryover from the art world, specifically from printmaking, where a master in many cases has a finite lifespan and can't be used indefinitely. From a sales and marketing standpoint it "protects the investment" of the buyer, helping haute art galleries in their efforts to inflate the value of photographs as art-commodity—galleries and art buyers have always been uneasy with photography's ability to flood its market and retroactively alter the rarity of items already sold.
My objection isn't just the usual one—that limited editions are not a good fit with photography's infinitely-reproducible nature—it's that it doesn't fit the way photographs "come to us," either.
I'll explain what I mean, but first a disclaimer. As the disparity of wealth has spiraled out of control in society, more and more producers are following a model of making far smaller production runs of items for sale at far higher prices. I see it in hi-fi equipment, another of my interests—we're now seeing things like a pair of speakers selling for more than the cost of my house, but designed to sell only to, say, sixty individuals (this is a real case, not an exaggeration). Some products are actually designed to sell in the single digits. So I'm not talking about true high art-world art here—in those rarified precincts, editions of, say, seven or even as few as three prints might indeed help each one sell for the hundreds of thousands of dollars asked. That's the business of those whose business it is, and has nothing to do with me.
But think for a moment about how photographers work. The analogy to pop music isn't terribly far off. Photographers tend to be "hot" for a relatively limited period of time and we tend only to get a few real "hits" in our careers. So, given that you're only going to get a few big hits, why limit your ability to profit from them?
David Vestal used to make the point that ordinary photographic prints are actually more limited than "limited editions." He himself habitually made five copies of each of the pictures that he printed, but, according to one of his surveys, the average limited edition was "limited" to 25 (this was a couple of decades ago; I don't know what it would be now, or even if there is a meaningful average any more). The counterexample is that when photographers have a picture that's truly in demand, there's little evidence that an unlimited edition hurts its value. Famously, Ansel Adams printed more than 800 copies of "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" in his lifetime, and yet for a while it held the record as the highest-priced photograph of all, and the market for it is still robust. Why? Because it's a beautiful picture, and they're beautiful prints, and people want them.
Unlimited: According to Afterimage Gallery in Dallas, Sotheby's recently sold a 20x24" "Moonrise" for $115,000, and the much more common 16x20's go for $50,000 to $70,000. It was never a limited edition.
The solution is to do limited runs, or limited offers, or distinguish the product/objects in some other way—by dating them, or by size. (Many times, photographers will limit the edition of the "real" or large size but make smaller prints unlimited. Makes sense to me.) The prints of Peter Turnley's we sold are a specific size, and are signed on the front and back by Peter and on the back by Voja, who printed them. These will be identifiable to art dealers of the future who run across them.
I tried to buy a print from a photographer a number of years ago. It was a platinum contact print from an 8x10 negative. Unfortunately, it was a limited edition of ten prints, and had already sold out. I didn't give up quite so easily—I called him and tried to wheedle him into selling me one "under the table," so to speak. He refused, which was honest of him, but along the way I discovered something that made an impression on me. It turned out that he limited the edition of all of his platinum prints to ten prints—and not a single one had sold out except that one—which he kept getting more requests for. Because it was his best picture, of course. "I sure wish I had set the edition on that one higher," he said, ruefully.
Or just not limited it at all, duh.
I hope you can see the irony there. Here was a guy who got lucky and had a picture he should have profited from—but he had prevented himself from benefitting from it. He left my $500 sitting on the table, that's for sure.
There might be a few people for whom limited editions actually make sense—but they're so few as to make them the exceptions that prove the rule. For 99% of us, limiting editions of photographs is, sorry to say it, stupid.
Of course, you could say I'm biased.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Brooks Jensen: "Bravo, Mike. Well said. I came to basically the same conclusion and wrote about my reasons for not limiting editions back in LensWork #36 in July of 2001 and a reprint of that article can be found here [link is a PDF]. It's all so silly and meaningless. And, as you say, it only hurts the working artist and only benefits the secondary players/markets. I just cringe every time I see that 1/250 on a print because I know that 99.99999% of the time the photographer won't make it to print #7. We actually had one of our Special Editions prints sell to 1,200 customers and I can assure you that photographer was very glad he resisted the limited edition nonsense. Keep up the good work!"
Brooks Jensen is the editor of LensWork Publishing. —Ed.
Featured Comment by QT Luong: "Limited editions are clearly nothing more than a marketing technique, however, besides one anecdote, the article provides little evidence that this technique does not work. I once talked about this subject with Ted Orland, who was one of Ansel Adams's assistants. Ted indicated that by limiting, Ansel Adams actually increased substantially his print sales. What benefit the galleries and the collectors also benefit the photographer. A gallery sale is better than no sale. If a collector is happy that his piece has gone up in value, won't he be more inclined to buy again? 99% (?) of photographers are not able to make a living solely out of their print sales. It would be interesting to see amongst the remaining 1% what is the percentage who limit their editions. I bet it is more than 1%."
Q.-Tuan Luong is the creator and editor of the LFphoto site. —Ed.
Featured Comment by Kenneth Jarecke: "Mike, This article should be mandatory reading for all photographers wishing to sell their work. I've been preaching the same for many years, but I don't say it quite so well. Limiting the number of prints only helps the gallery owners and the secondary market. I think in most cases it actually hurts the photographer. Also, wasn't it Ctein who once did a survey proving that there were more so called 'limited edition' prints floating around then the open edition prints? I think it had something to do with the definition of 'edition.' Like a photographer could create an edition on a different type of paper, or a 1/4-inch difference in size and call it a completely new edition. Personally, I think the printing part of the process should either be done by the creator of the photograph or a master printer working under the direction of the creator to best realize their vision. This approach would deliver the best possible interpretation and also naturally limited the number of prints produced."
Ken Jarecke is a leading photojournalist who took one of the iconic photos of the first Gulf War. —Ed.
Featured Comment by Joe: "If you want art gallery representation these days, the odds are great that your contract will require you sell only in limited editions. That's just the way the art world is working. Gallery clients want limited editions, and usually won't touch an open edition. And since the typical gallery/photographer split is 50/50 (I'm ignoring the many qualifications), the interests of the gallery align with the those of the photographer (mostly). A gallery's interest is in getting the most income out of the photos, and if more money could be made with open editions, you can be sure the galleries would be happy to oblige. Hence the many counterexamples, like that Ansel Adams cited by Mike. This isn't to say that every gallery-represented photographer is well served by this model, or every print or every sale. But for the vast majority of gallery sales, limited editions make the most economic sense."
Mike replies: How many gallery-represented photographers do you know? More to the point, how many of the ones you know are doing something other than dying on the vine with their gallery sales? By rough calculation, I know five times as many gallery-represented photographers who hardly ever sell a print as contrasted to gallery-represented photographers who make a significant portion of their living from their gallery's efforts. Your experience might differ, of course.
Also, I would amend your sentence "A gallery's interest is in getting the most income out of the photos" to be "A gallery's interest is in getting the most income out of the photos for the gallery." Emphasis mine. I have no hard numbers, but I suspect a lot of worth at the high end gets added on resales, which don't benefit the photographer at all. My allegiance is to photographers, not necessarily to galleries, and what I'm talking about is how photographers can get the most income out of their photos for themselves.