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Thursday, 24 March 2011


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Great article!

Alain Briot had a good article on this subject over at Luminous Landscape recently. He came to pretty much the same conclusion, for some of the same reasons.

Good post Mike. I was making prints in limited editions mainly because the galleries asked for that, but I've decided no more. For most photographers limited editions are a bad idea and benefit the galleries and buying public (when a print is resold) more than the photographer. It's a way to artificially make the object rarer and more expensive. Not a bad thing if you are the one in a million high end art photographer, but for the rest of the huddling masses of photographers it doesn't help.

I agree wholeheartedly. Ansel Adams, who was a genius, said: the negative is the score, the print is the interpretation.

Now, would any reasonable composer claim: my composition may only be recorded a dozen times?

Limiting is also so unnatural!

Great printers have a limited output anyway, so this should suffice to make a print rare enough. Also, there is nothing to say against rising the prise when the number of sales rises.

But limiting?

I've never liked the idea of artificial scarcity, which is what "limited" editions are all about.

In the science fiction convention offset print market in the 1980s I'd see "limited" editions of 5000 being sold. On the good side, I don't think they were in huge danger of putting themselves out of business by selling out the edition. On the bad side, I don't think anybody paid them extra money because the print was available only in limited quantities.

"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 geta few big hits, why limit your ability to profit from them?"

Conversely, struggling to sell art for years and then having a big hit can make striking while the iron is hot seem like a really good idea and the long term not so important. All you can do is make a choice and hope it proves to be the right one.

That turntable sure is purdy. And it looks like there's another $150 kilobucks worth of carpets in the room. Must be nice.

I wonder if it actually sounds better than something that costs $2k?

And it sounds like the photographer you wanted to buy a print from really has a misplaced sense of integrity: Since he wasn't benefiting from limiting his print runs in the past (they weren't selling out, so there was no premium based on rarity), he could easily change his policy. Or he could have made an exception by doing a second run of 10 (or more), and marking them clearly as a "second edition."

People like to think their work is special, which is why they do silly things like limit access. Those of us who have no idea whether we're really go or not know better.

Alain Briot had a lot to say on this subject at the Luminous Landscape not too long ago:


If the guy you tried to buy the platinum contact print from had been a little more savvy, he would have realized that most limited edition prints -- in the art world anyway -- are n+2AP, and that the 'Artist's Proofs" are identical to the rest of the edition. Usually the artist gives them away to friends, but I've certainly seen them up for sale (usually on the secondary market), and at the same price as the rest of the edition.

Of course, this doesn't mitigate your point, which I generally agree with (though not, perhaps, %99.99 of the time...in some cases, I think, a well-printed book serves as the 'infinite' run, allowing photographers to have their cake and eat it too).

Which brings me to a question for you all: I remember reading somewhere about a photographer of some note who made a practice of burning his negatives after he had finished his limited print run, in order to ensure that no further prints were made, either by him or by his heirs. But I can't remember who it was. Do any of you know?

I like the idea of effectively limiting editions by raising the price after every five or ten prints are sold, because it seems to offer the best of both worlds: Early print buyers benefit as the price increases because this will also raise the market price for their print(s) and photographers benefit by being able to capture a portion of the increase in value that would otherwise be lost to resellers on the secondary market.

Now if only I could figure out a way to sell the first five prints for one of my photos...

Didn't David Vestal also conclude that the majority of 'limited editions' never sold out? Making them in fact rarer than indicated.

I don't think there is a simple answer, but perhaps David Vestal has come close to a solution: Print a set number of prints from each session, sign and date them and mark each successive session as an edition.

A few years ago, I saw what may be the ultimate in limited edition photos. Harking back to the days of film, the photographer (Craig Tanner) was showing a framed work that included both a fine art print AND the 4X5 negative. I'm not sure how (or even if) he handled scans from the negative, but there was only one original.

I don't know that you could translate the concept to digital, even if you wanted to.

The edition conundrum is something that bothered me for sometime. With the ease by which an identical copy of a print can now be produced with a digital photo printer, the idea of a limited print run doesn't seem to make much sense.

I decided that an edition represented a certain print size, on a specific paper and ink, and specific printer profile. I don't want to print an entire edition upfront (I don't have anywhere to store them) and therefore cannot see the point of setting an artificial number for the edition. The editions are limited because technology changes, printers break, papers and ink come and go, and eventually (not soon, I hope) I will die and no one will be able to find the digital negative buried on my, by this point defunct, computer. I just don't know how limited the edition will be upfront.

Anyway, it's all a bit of a moot point...I've only ever sold in the range of 0 to 2 prints from any edition. I suppose they will all be very limited editions in the end!


Roman Loranc has solved the problem in a clever way.
His most famous print "Two Hearted Oak" (which was also the title of his sold-out book), was a limited edition which quickly sold out while his reputation was still relatively unknown. Now he is selling it in vertical format with no limit on the number. I don't know if he made two negatives at the same time, or went back and re-shot (which is what I presume)after he discovered how profitable it should be.

Clyde Butcher sells many of his prints in limited edition (at VERY high prices), but they are also available in inkjet prints of unlimited quantity quite reasonably.

Aprops of the Richard Prince discussion and this one, here is Jim Stone's "Pricerise" from 1982:

Parody or appropriation? Actionable or protected? Art or not? Who knows!

Limited editions may work for a really small set of artists. For an unknown at a local art fair, it seems like misplaced hubris to me.

I subscribe to the philosophy that Brooks Jensen publisher of “LensWork” magazine has adopted. As a a powerhouse of common sense in fine art photography his views must drive the high- priced and “limited-special- rare” gallery owners crazy. How many photographers can say they have sold forty thousand original prints and in doing so made fine art photography available to everyone? A little sanity in an often insane world, what a concept!

I'm in total agreement with you on this Mike. Many moons ago I had a website (Circle of Confusion) on which I had sharelessons (like shareware, pay on the honor system)and opinion pieces as well as galleries of my B&W photos. I wrote a piece about limited editions and caught a lot of flak from photographers defending the practice as a way to artificially increase the value of their prints. At the other end of the spectrum are the prints and folios that Brooks Jensen does through LENSWORK where the aim is to make prints as affordable as possible. He sells individual prints for as little as $20. I've never asked him how well that works. I suspect the magazine is his main source of income and the occasional print sale is coffee money.

The ultimate limited edition of 1 print seems to have been a success for Peter Lik:


Very nice image, but I still can't grasp that someone would be willing to pay that price.

Excellent subject! I remember being 'hipped' to the 'editioning' thing by a few art photographer friends: i.e. they made limited edition prints, but when the popular ones sold out, they made another 'limited edition' in a different size. I though it was sort of sneaky, but have to agree with you, I don't look at photography in general as a 'limited edition' format, so maybe there shouldn't be a limited edition to begin with?

If I recall my misspent years in college, the initial reason for editioning anything in the first place didn't have anything to do with pricing something on scarcity, it had to do with the ability of the reproductive media to produce only so many copies before it started to decline in quality. If you were getting a 10/2500 of a copperplate, it was more likely to be more valuable and a 'finer' print than a 2499/2500 of the same print. I can understand that, but in photography? I know the negs deteriorate, but if you're outputting a pigmented print, they virtually look the same until the head screws up or the machine goes down, and then you just get another one (yeah, I know it's not that easy, but you get it).

I remember going to the Chicago Photographic Print Fair three years in a row, and after seeing a print I wanted from a gallery in the southwest, the first year, I saved my money, and went the next year to buy it, and it was 150 dollars more, because it was closer to the end of the 'edition', and they were running out. Same thing happened the third year, but I think the guy gave in and sold it to me for the previous years price. But the interesting thing was, they were modern prints from a dead photographers negs, and the 'editioning' was totally artificial to create value; and there was no agreement that they just couldn't print more. After-all, they weren't 'vintage' prints made by the original photographer. Strange...

I believe it was Brian Duffy.

Who knows? He may become a sensation posthumously, and then all of his limited prints might increase in value a thousand-fold, which would benefit his heirs :D


Not sure if this is what you are referring to, Brett Weston burnt all his negatives on his 80th birthday. I guess so no one can pollute his vision and make lesser prints or something.

What a shame....

Mike, you have given me something to think about as I limit my prints to 25 and I have NEVER sold out an edition. I also only print them on demand so is that really not an edition? I solved the limit problem by deciding if I ever needed a 26th print I could go the AP road or start a 2nd edition.

Perhaps the better solution is a compromise. Simply number the prints in ascending order. That way those who have lower numbers can feel like they got there first and thus perceive more value while at the same time creating an impetus for the buyer to purchase now while the numbers are still low.

Great article thanks for sharing...limited editions...I wish!

It seems to me that limited edition prints (art, photography, books, whatever..) really benefit the buyer more than the producer. Because of the scarcity, the buyer is willing to pay more, which is superficially attractive to the producer. However in the long term, resale profits go to the original purchaser. The producer should be looking to maximise his overall income - numbers sold x price, not just price per print.

What a fascinating article and follow-on comments.

I am completely oblivious to the economics of a limited-edition, but educated by the views of others. But from my layman's perspective, surely the possession of a limited edition only has merit in a financial sense? One can enjoy a print of Moonrise just as much from an unlimited poster run as one can from the set of 20 that Ansel printed himself?

In my home, every picture bar one is a unique edition of one, whether it be an oil painting of a hunt by an unknown artist, a watercolour by my great great grandfather of the Swiss Alps from a holiday in 1862, or a snapshot taken by me of my daughter aged four that pleases me and of which I have a cheap supermarket 6x4 inch print in an equally cheap frame on my desk.

The exception is a print (about 24x18) of an oil painting that is limited to 55 copies. It depicts my Regiment in action against the Iraqi 12th Armoured Division on Objective Lead on the 25th February 1991 in southern Iraq. The officers of the Regiment commissioned an artist to make the picture after the event, taken from some photographs that several of us took during the action (I am proud that one of mine was chosen, but it is by no means the dominant element of the collage). The run was limited to one full-sized oil painting to hang in the Officers' Mess, and 55 prints. Every officer committed to buy one print, with one print each for the Sergeants', Corporals', and Troopers' Messes. To me, it is a badge of membership of an (by default) exclusive group, and thus invaluable.

Ed, that's kind of ingenious, actually.

Rob, you're right -- which is why a lot of artists keep a few copies of the edition for themselves, so that if and when the price goes up, they, too, can benefit. (I believe Cindy Sherman did this, for example, which is how MoMA ended up with a complete set of her Film Stills.)

Man, I'm posting a lot today...

An interesting thread. A few months ago I bought an 11x14 print of a beautiful scene on the Yangtze River from a Chinese photographer to display in an "Asian" room my wife is setting up. I saw it first in a folio in Silverprint magazine. It cost $300 as a resin coated print or $500 for a fibre print in black & white.
More recently I contacted another photographer to enquire about a print we wanted to add to the display after seeing it featured in Lenswork. It too was quite a beautiful Asian scene and would have completed a set of three images we wanted. The photographer has no representation in Australia.
I received a reply from a gallery owner in America saying that the prints were only available as 8x8 prints made personally by the photographer, there was an edition limit of 45 and prices started from $2000 and increased from there according to the print selected.

I'm a photographer, an amateur at that, not a collector. And I'm retired. I wrote back saying the prices were "silly" even though I know that in the USA "art" photography market would not see those price levels as remarkable.
So, like Mike my $500 was left lying on the table. I guess I'll be corresponding with China again.

And then, of course, there's Jeff Wall, who for the most part makes unique prints. (Actually, they're transparencies, and he makes two, which he sells together in case one fades.) The idea, of course, is to make photography on par with painting, and while it may go against our intuitions about the nature of the medium, it's an interesting tactic. I don't know if anyone else has tried it.

Comment 1 of 5: Couldn't agree more.

>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.

I know quite a few gallery repped photographers, and of course they're as varied as any group of artists, but all of them are doing much, much better than the photographers I know who are not represented. (Of course that's mostly to be expected — the most marketable photographers are hand-picked by the galleries.)

I know many represented photographers who make a significant portion of their living from their gallery's efforts. I don't know any fine art photographers selling prints outside the gallery system who make a significant portion of their living that way.

You can see the problem -- we're both drawing conclusions based on the circles we run in. I don't think either your or my experience is a statistically random sample. There are examples on both sides, but no hard data.

And I stick by my point: if you do want to be represented -- which offers a lot of advantages such as solo gallery shows, groups shows, promotion, access to collectors, etc. -- then you're almost certain to be required to edition your prints.

>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.

Well I don't know about resale. My galleries don't deal in resale, only first sales. I've gotten excellent guidance, invaluable guidance for my work and career from my representatives, and I do attribute some of that to the fact that our interests are aligned.

Maybe I'm just one of the lucky ones.

Is the X100 a limited edition?

I agree with Crabby Umbo in remembering from art school that 'editioning' was more a product of reproduction media losing quality over the run of prints rather than creating scarcity for the item. A higher numbered print was considered less valuable because the copperplate/screen/whatever was getting more worn, hence had less quality than an earlier print.

I've also bought a few woodcuts, serigraphs, and the like that were unnumbered artists proofs, but none of them were done on the same paper as the 'run', they were usually done on vellum, newsprint, or some other media to check the look and quality. This definition of an artist proof has seemed to been corrupted over the years to mean a few extra prints made by the artist on the same media as the original edition to hold back in case the prices really took off; not the original intent: the artist proof was meant to check everything out before committing to a run on the 'good expensive paper'!

In the 'day' a lot of photographers might make an edition of 20 or 25 prints, because with the broader range of variables in photographic prints, such as accuracy of burning and dodging, dry down, variation in paper emulsions, etc.; it behooved them to make a group of photos while they were on a 'printing roll' with any neg that would be very close in look and feel. They may not be able to perfectly match a neg 6 or 12 months later, even with notes and a reference print, so this was a guard against this. Some photographers even reach a peak of performance somewhere in their career and then head downhill, some get better until they die, etc. So this editioning may add value as well (after their demise), if certain eras of their life are considered better than others.

But I have to say, a lot of art photographers I know today, even those shooting on film, like scanning the negs, and then doing their dodging, burning, after-effects in PhotoShop, and then making iris/pigment/giclee prints 'on demand', even if they are editioning, strictly because of the repeatablity of the process. Even the editioners, just press the button every time someone wants one, and they just keep track of the number printed; no big upfront expenses and 24 prints sitting around in an edition of 25!

Good on you Mike!
I have been in the Art business for over thirty years and except for 'hand pulled' lithos and etchings, have completely resisted the "limited editon" print and collectable sales game, while at the same time assuredly hurting my bottom line.
The words "limited edition" in the art and collectables market is one of the most misused sales gimmicks ever perpetrated on the public.
The practice of holding parts of editions off the market to artifically increase value, and misrepresenting A/Ps as more valuable to sell them at inflated prices are just a couple practices that many unscroupulous dealers commonly use to take advantage of unknowing consumers. There are too many questionable practices to be listed here.

Well I reckon I could probably limit MY editions to ONE without too much risk of selling out!
I tried selling photography for money years ago and enjoy it so much more now that's out of the way and get much more pleasure saying to people 'no, that's not available at any price'. I do one beautiful print for my wall and that's it folks.

What's that high tech potters wheel doing on that beautiful Meimeh?

I always thought that Irving Penn's pricing on his platinum prints was the smartest. Every time he sold a print the next one was priced a certain percentage higher. The more prints he sold of an image the more the earlier prints were worth, and his buyers were protected without him having to limit the edition.

"And I stick by my point: if you do want to be represented -- which offers a lot of advantages such as solo gallery shows, groups shows, promotion, access to collectors, etc. -- then you're almost certain to be required to edition your prints."

I guess, by definition, being represented by a gallery that requires limiting would be one very good reason to limit your prints.


Mike, thank you for the post on this topic. I have agonized over this issue for a long time, in retrospect it seems much too much. I've come to same conclusion that you have. Unfortunately I already have images out there that are "limited editions", but the edition size is such that I doubt they will sell out, so perhaps no harm done!

As far as marketing, your points are (slightly) contrasted by this article (which agrees that limited editions for photography generally don't make sense) that points out that some marketing outlets (some art fairs) REQUIRE limited editions, and that might be a reason (the only reason) to do it: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/the_numbering_affair.shtml .

I only point this out in view of the confusing influences that can cloud this issue. But I think your points cut through the nonsense. I wish I had read your post 5 years ago.

"I always thought that Irving Penn's pricing on his platinum prints was the smartest. Every time he sold a print the next one was priced a certain percentage higher."

Jo Tartt did this for Sally Mann, too. She wanted to price them low, he wanted to price them high, so they compromised--the price started low and got higher as they sold more. The most popular pictures from "Immediate Family" of course quickly got up to the $5500 max (in the '80s), and Sally still didn't have time to fill all the orders....

The only trouble with this scheme is that you then have to keep track. Might be more difficult for some than for others.


Something that Brooks said on this topic in an interview a few months back gave me a jolt, though in a good way. Interviewed by Peter Urban for smibs.tv, Brooks said that in the past, while he was still pricing his prints at a few hundred dollars, he sold hardly any but when he set his prices at 'fine art for real people' prices, they started 'selling like crazy'. He provides figures and I was impressed. He also makes a really good case, with conviction. It's best if you hear it from the man himself: the interview is here. If you're impatient, wind forward to 37:37. To Brooks: bravo!

People will say that his circumstances won't apply to everyone; that may be but they do apply to a good proportion of people seeking advice on this issue. The question for many photographers is this: is it worth limiting editions if your work isn't already fetching high prices and selling well?

Of course all this talk of limiting editions and canceling negatives is not complete without mentioning Thomas Barrow

@ Joe Holmes,

Your snow photos, especially the dog park photo with all the dogs, remind me of Currier & Ives prints. Very nice.


I have to say that much of the debate here is academic with regard to gallery representation today. Joe (Holmes) is absolutely correct with his remarks; strategic editioning of photo prints (and other repro media) is simply assumed and essential at established art galleries in every major city. The situation is certainly different at tourist/souvenir galleries where buyers are often looking for mementos and produce-whatever-you-can-sell is the strategy.

But the staple of trade for established urban art galleries is the collector who typically requires editioning to seriously consider a buy.

That's the way it is, Mike. And likely to remain that way. As Joe noted this may not always best serve the photo artist but it's definitely a double edged sword. Yes, I'm sure that there are a lot of photographers whose work is languishing at galleries. But there are a lot of photographers who get into lazy, backwater galleries that don't represent them well. And, of course, there are a lot of photographers who are not committed artists and have no business in gallery representation at all.

Representation is a business partnership to show and sell your product. Editioning is one aspect of developing a total strategy to market that product, artificial though it may be.

The marketing world's love affair with "limited editions" brings a smile to my face every time a box of 100 DVDs and blu rays arrive at work marked "2-disc limited edition". Are they doing it with a sense of irony, I wonder?

I don't know. This does not seem so difficult to understand. If AA had limited editions they would be more valuable today. If he had had the inclination to destroy the negative of moonrise over Hernandez with the first print it would be sold for millions, not a few hundred thousand. It is simply supply and demand and the mink coat effect would have kicked in - higher the price, the more demand. If one of your prints sold for $100 million it would increase demand and price for all your prints. Limited editions of photographs is no more "artificial" than stripping the lithographic stone when the lithograph edition is done. If photographers don't have the fortitude to give up their "negative", then their lack of earnings are no different than the artist who cannot bear to give up his artisitic "children".

Great article!

Limited Editions seem to serve more to enrich the gallery owners and impoverish the photographers

It's not about editions stupid......it's about making money (since as Andy Warhol already demonstrated the Greenback is the only true work of art in the minds of to many people). The BBC had a nice documentary about the art price bubble a few years back (just about when the bubble for con art, oops contemporary art sort of burst due to the popping of another bubble). The thing is, art is a part of an economy and economy is a bloodsport. One rule and one rule only governs that sport.....how do I create value out of thin air? The best way to do that is to create value by:

1) Creating scarecety but scarecety alone does not cut it.

2) Manipulating prices by supporting wealthy (and not so wealthy) buyers, ah, does anyone remember the NINJA mortgage, in order to make them purchase at auctions. And auctions are the place were art gets valued these days.

And this cuts both ways.......lets say I'm buying a Mike Johnson today for 200 dollars......hell lets say I buy them all (Mike it's the lets say that is the modus operandi here, sorry). Mike would walk home with a few grand........then I'd organise a show with Mike's pictures.....just to get the interrest growing in them. I would treat the press to a nice vernisage, get them to write favourably about Mike's pictures, lulling them with my art talk and that would probably (since I'm a famous galerist of my own and journalists usually don't know squad about what they are writing about as anyone with a masters degree finds out if they are happening to write about his or hers profession) result in one or a few favourable reviews. Then I'd repeat the proces a few times over in bigger galleries.

Then I'd go to one of the auction houses and get my client base to that auction and tell them Mike's pictures are the steal of the auction. And of course I would have a few of them instructed to buy (and equiped with cheap credit) at above the market value in order to drive up that market value.

And that I own 500 prestine Mike Johnson's well Mike that would be a dirty little secret between you and me. And what happens, we all benefit. Mike benefits since he can claim his share of the rise in value (unless of course Mike is allready dead, wait the story gets better). The gallery benefits since 50% of a 200.000 sale is more then 50% of a 200 dollar sale. And the buyer also benefits since the price of his property rises. Now how can this benefit the customer. Well lets say I'm in desperate need of a tax deduction. I can give away (donate is proper word here) to a charity institution like a museum. But if I donate my Carravagio or Rembrandt that does not help, does it. But wait I'v been tipped, you know a freindly tip of course, to buy the first run of Mike Johnsons pictures by gallery so and so. And hey prices have now blossomed (ah bubbled, what's in a word). So I'm donating 10 Mike Johnstons to the MoMA, and presto a tax redux of 2.000.000 which cost me 2000. Nice, I like my gallerist.

Now I was talking about dead photographers and here is were the story takes a nice twist. A few years back a Dutch photographer (tallented but mentally in a not so proper state) lived in a hut in The Hague (by his own liking by the way). He used a Praktika camera, some kind of film, a darkroom and a few models that wanted to pose for him. He was so afraid that someone would steal his copyright that he signed his print with a tag bearing the mark copyright Gerard Fieret. 60 of his print were bought by an American gallerist at a price tag of 200 guilders a piece as a Dutch documentary about the man states (and if I can recall well), in a way she recognised the value and rescued the photo's and gave them there place in art, and Gerard didn't die broke. The prints however are really rare since the rest of the prints are mostly destroyed (by Gerard, by time and by mice) and are sold now for up to 20.000 a piece.

That is how (at least a part of) the art market functions. The art market creates value by the appreciation of the few and the following of the many of those few. That can be exploited in a big way.


A) BBC, Ben Lewis, The great contemporary art bubble.

B) Copyright G.P Fieret,


Greatings, Ed

Dear Ken,

No, David Vestal did that survey. I merely was one of the many photographer surveyed.

I've regularly cited the survey (with attribution) which is probably how you got it and me concatenated in your memory.


Dear Paul,

The "session" scheme you suggest could be called an "edition," but if you call it a "limited edition" it's fraud. That term has legal meaning and implications.

pax / Ctein

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