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Tuesday, 02 April 2013


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...one of my pals is starting his second career as an "art" photographer, and even tho he has a collection of negs, and digital files to print and market, he decided years ago to be involved in the pigment/iris printing process precisely because he wants to have the repeatability of "on demand" printing with NO edition limits...some one wants one, he presses the button, and virtually no difference between that and the last one....

At one time, he was even investigating doing some sort of copper-plate etching thing, but when the computerized printing got high-rez and archival, he decided that was the way to go...he can make all his burning and dodging "moves" on the file, and then print out depending on demand. And really, why should he be cut out of the profit if an image takes off? He shouldn't. I'm thinking you'd really have to sell a lot to have the volume impact the price. Who sells that many? And if they were smart, they'd edition anyway, so why even promise it?

Mike, your editioning scheme is exactly what Brooks Jensen does, if memory serves.

[I wasn't aware of that, but it doesn't surprise me that Brooks came to the idea first. Maybe we should start a grassroots movement! --Mike]

This makes so much sense to me, and all the more so in this day and age. As inkjet (or other types) of printers improve, why prevent oneself from using the newer and maybe better technology.

What is this all going to mean when LCDs can reproduce the same resolution as paper?

Mike that's a really rational suggestion. I think it's very useable. I hope people listen to you.

*Unless you live in France, if memory serves: See Droit de suite:

Droit de suite (French for “right to follow”) is a right granted to artists or their heirs, in some jurisdictions, to receive a fee on the resale of their works of art. This should be contrasted with policies such as the American first-sale doctrine, where artists do not have the right to control or profit from subsequent sales.

Makes all the sense in the world...

I tried this limited edition thang, when I was painting in oils - completely exhausting!

Now if I were a photographer I could see limited editions working. It takes it further in the mind of the public away from photography's fraternity with posters and closer to the idea of a one of a kind painting. Unlimited supply should only be available at Walmart, I fear we fear, otherwise we'd have water at Sotheby's, wouldn't we?

And it is not a free country. It is pretty expensive! ;)

I hear you Mike

But I have an exception


The last book I published in 1996 was a limited edition of 500 copies. Once the books arrived from the hardbinder, I counted out 500 clean copies and destroyed all of the extras so the editon started at 500. Any losses of books due accidents by me, or losses in shipping were the part of the edition history. At least the statement of limitation was accurate and adhered to by me. Sadly, I still have copies in storage. The limited edition book market drastically changed after that. It would financially foolish to even consider doing that with a fiction book today in the digital market.

Using dated sequential "editions" makes a great deal of sense, more so than a single "limited" edition. Of course, it would be necessary to include a printed disclaimer that specifically informs potential buyers of the intent to print and market later editions as well.

In fact, given that photo materials and processes tend to improve, later editions might be either more archivally stable or perhaps better appearing, which could make some later editions more valuable than "first editions", just as some vintages of fine wines are better and hence cost more.

I've always hated the notion of "limited edition" photographic prints, or, indeed, the fact that some living photographers sell prints for vast sums of money. It's understandable that prints by a deceased photographer *if made by the artist him/herself* will increase in value; but one of the great properties of photography is its potential to be extremely democratic. Prints are easily reproduced; this makes it possible to sell them profitably at the sort of prices many people can afford, viz. TOP's excellent print-sales. Moderately- or even economically-priced work by a good photographer will nearly always find a market and brings the bonus of removing him/her from the gallery/museum/curator/pundit tyranny.

Your comments on limiting print editions are spot on!

I first heard this same
point of view by listening to ideas of Brooks Jensen the publisher of LensWork magazine and a
Fine art photographer. I also have become a pragmatist in this regard and while I would love to sell more images I like the concept of letting anyone who wants to own an image of mine have one at a fair price. Someday when I achieve fame I will raise my prices and reward those who invested in my work when I really needed the income.

Your plan is very much what I have thought of doing, should I ever do editioned prints. For me the labeling would be something like "Edition 2013 - Pigment Inkjet Print. x / xx"

That leaves the artist open to reprint or to print new versions or different media, but should still protect a collector.

So far for me it's a moot point. I don't think I ever sold more than about 4 of any one print, and unless I get a lot more famous and/or ambitious that is not likely to change.

Unless you live in France, if memory serves.

I thought it works that way in the whole of the European Union (except of course the UK but who takes these dudes serious anyway :-) were it is debated).

In Australia there is a sort of right to follow as well (5% of the askingprice if that price > 1000 Australian Dollars).

And on the Philipines.....

Till 2012 something simular was in place in California but it was ruled unconstitutional May 17 2012 (yeps you Yanks must seriously check you constitution on some points, maybe the Iroqouis didn't think of firearms and art moguls when they dictated it to George, Ben and Thommy :-)).

Our Dutch constitution is celbrating its 30th bithday this year....quietly....and yes it was written 1812. But it was revised completely several times......and even the revised constitutions were revised upon, last time in 2008.

Greets, Ed.

Limited editions might work well for all if the photographer retains a number, possibly 50%, of the copies. In such a case, the photographer would be able to take advantage of pricing hysteria that may occur.


Most limited editions don't sell out, even small editions. (I bought a print that is one of seven, if I recall; and I used to print in editions of 2 (one for me, one for you).) So for the vast majority of a photographer's work, the issue is moot.

The examples of unlimited editions that end up working for the photographer are "Moonrise, Hernandez, NM" and that famous print of Stravinsky and the piano. But those are the rare exception, and in my experience you know when one of your images has extraordinary potential. That's when you refuse to limit the edition, or you set an absurdly high limit, or you create another scheme to sell the image. But planning the sale of your artwork on the assumption that everything you take is going to be your gravy train is irrational.

(Note: I am in no way defending the gallery system, etc. etc. It's a bad deal for the artist no matter what, and artists are better off forming a collective or self-marketing.)

I have a friend who's an internationally renowned artist. He did a series of lino-cuts a few years ago and his gallery insisted that he limit them. He didn't like the idea but had to agree in order for the gallery to sell them. In a subtle 'up yours' to the gallery he limited each edition to 750.

Thank you, Mike. This needs to be said every now and then. The last time before this one that you discussed this matter, you strengthened my spine, if I may borrow your term. I think there will be quite a few photographers like me who know in their heart of hearts that this is the way to operate, but who are made to doubt their own principles by self acclaimed advisors in the secondary market. That is where you come in, voicing, supporting and explaining with natural authority (which I grant you out of my own free will - as long as you behave yourself, of course...) the healthy and common-sensical notion that limiting the printed number of a photograph in advance, is antithetical to the very nature of photography. Thanks again for saying so so eloquently.

Amen and amen!

I agree on your overall point, but mildly disagree on several specifics. IMHO, the phrase "limited edition" has not uniformly or generally been used by photographers or gallery owners to mean, "One of ten identical prints, but we're allowed to print as many other editions as we wish."

There have been a number of well-known photographers who have printed essentially open editions of their most famous works -- "Running White Deer" is open, as was "Moonrise." If you're going to make the distinction between "open" and "limited," and if "limited" doesn't really mean "limited," then what does it mean?

I'll tell you what it means -- it means somebody is getting hustled.
What's going on here is that the photographer, who has no idea how valuable his property will become, decides he wants a cut of the bigger money, and despite his at least implicit guarantee that he won't print any more, decides to do just that.

As you mention, this idea of "limited editions" comes from the world of mechanical prints, in which (with ethical artists) the plate is defaced or destroyed after the edition is printed. Even when that isn't done, impressions after a certain point become degraded, and less valuable, so these prints are, in a way, self-limiting. That's not the case with photography.

What's the poor photographer to do? Well, he has to make a decision. If it's open, it's open. If not, it's limited. If he wants to call the edition "limited," but suspects the prints may be valuable some day, okay, make five "artists proofs" and stick them in a file, but disclose that when you sell the limited edition, just like printmakers do. If he doesn't go the "artists proof" route, and his prints becomes more valuable, well then, suck it up, pal. You made your decision. But if he calls it "limited," and he then makes more, he's committed (in my opinion) a fraud.

(Other people have pointed out here that sometimes an artist will work and rework the same theme. There was recently a Matisse show based on this very idea -- that he worked and then reworked a specific scene, sometimes several times. But all of those paintings are clearly distinct, and everybody knows they exist.)

Finally, instead of just thinking about the "poor photographer" we should consider the much poorer gallery owner. Despite occasional and exceptional cases, most galleries (and especially most photography galleries) survive only a very short time. Even some famous galleries have been reformulated as "private dealers, by appointment only." You know what that means? It means the gallery sank. "Limited edition" is a sales tactic used by galleries to create sales. I can't blame them for looking at every tactic available to do that.

And who needs galleries? Not the public. They could probably get along quite well without a photograph on the walls. It's the photographers who need the galleries...and the galleries need the sales tactics. And if the photographers agree to the gallery's sales tactic, then they should live with that decision. You article seems to treat dealers in photographs, and collectors, with disdain, as if there's something wrong about what they do. Well...really?

[I was with you until the end. No, of course there's nothing wrong with galleries or collectors. It's just that I think they do photographers a disservice when they pressure them to put an artificial limit on production forever just to have a successful show or to sell to more collectors at the time of the show. It's not in the best interests of the photographer.

I'm talking to photographers, and I'm trying to convince them to keep their editions open. I think it makes more sense for them in the long run. --Mike]

Yes, Ansel Adams may have printed more than 600 copies of "Moonrise" and is hasn't stopped prints of that image selling for $15,000 to $25,000 or more. However, how much would prints of it sell for if he had only printed, say, 25? $200,000??? More???

Geoff Wittig, amazingly, the economics of printing books has changed. My wife recently went to Barnes & Noble to purchase a book for me. I had re-read my original copy so many times that it fell apart. The clerk told her that they no longer keep that book on the shelves, but print on demand. That on-demand book is cheaper than the original, traditionally printed edition.

One way to handle this is to number each print - as 1st print from Negative XXX, printed by Photographer on 7DEC1941.

This allows for more prints, numbers each as well as showing the date they were printed.

Most photographers seldom print more than five of any image - if that many.

A few years back David Vestal had an article on this - think it was Photo Techniques magazine 15 years or so ago.

Dear Mike,

While I do not have the visceral hatred of limited editions that DDB does (expressed in his comment to the Sobel article), it has always felt to me like a conceit, and not one of the charming ones. Really, it's simply a marketing device, absolutely nothing more nor less, and anyone who tries to make it into something of greater import, pro or con, is crediting it with a majesty that is not its due. I reject it.

It seems to me the myth that is used to promote the practice is that scarcity will drive up one's print prices. I've seen precious little (as in, no) real data to support that; almost all the argumentation starts out with the formalism of "Well, it stands to reason that..." and then you know how much actual information it's based on.

What does drive up prices is demand, and that is not at all the same thing. Especially since the demand for most of the photographs in one's oeuvre turns out to be approximately zero. Even an edition of 1 far outstrips that demand. (And, before someone suggests it, no, the naive "law of supply and demand" does NOT say that restricting your supply will drive up your prices. Prices *may* go up. Or not. It can even drive them down).

After I close down my darkroom in three months, I may amuse myself by tallying up how many of the 301 photographs in my dye transfer portfolio have ever sold a single print. I have no idea what that answer will be, but I'm pretty sure that the majority have sold no more than one print; it could very well be that the majority have sold none. 301 photographs may sound like a large portfolio, and I suppose it is in absolute numbers, but it was generated over almost 40 years-- introducing fewer than eight new works a year is not exactly flooding the market.

Once the darkroom is gone, I plan to update my website to tell people exactly how many dye transfer prints are left of each photograph. I'll let you know if there's a run on the scarce ones. I'll betcha a nice lunch there won't be.

For my part, I early-on rejected limited editions not because of the conceit (meh-- I can ignore that; it is just marketing nonsense) but because it made it more likely I'd not make the absolutely best possible prints of those photographs over my lifetime. Even in my noobiest noob days I understood I'd be constantly getting better and better at my craft ... or I'd find a different one. (That is still true, I haven't stopped getting better.) Now, THAT seemed like a perversion of the art: engage in a practice that was more likely to produce worse work in order to make more money. Ick.

pax / Ctein

The limiting of print editions has deep roots, but as Mike correctly points out, they have little to do with the medium of photography(itself, technically). The only exceptions being the death or infirmity of the artist, or the master printer, or the elimination of a paper or process(Ctein's Dye transfers come to mind...). Mostly print editions being limited had to do with technical issues related to the technique--certain ones, like drypoint as a classic example, just cannot be run in larger editions because the plate degrades.

But even much of fine art printing other than photography is limited only in that the conditions of the first edition can't be met again, such as an artist's direct involvement (think Rauschenberg and Johns), or that that's all the costs that could be assumed at the time. but there are also plenty of instances where there have been second and third editions (certain Japanese prints come to mind).

At the same time, however, although Mike makes some excellent points about who benefits in these "limited" situations, limiting an edition is not altogether illegitimate---because the dealers actually have a legitimate stake in this. They are after all bearing the financial burdens of their businesses, from staffing and rents to utilities, and are indeed giving the artist a value add of marketing, if they are worth their salt. Getting with a good gallery is a very important part of the making of a career ----which is very different than the making of the work or developing a vision, etc. Let's use Rauschenberg and Johns as examples again for the positive, and that old chestnut of Van Gogh as the negative (although the real story with him is a bit more complex...).

I know of successful photographers with very large limited editions - 1000 - that are absolute except for posters or postcards, etc. The price goes up the higher the number, not the lower. A lot of money is being made. One lucky photographer.

I think the 'limited' debate is misguided. The question really is, when does mass production cease to be art? - a question that has been around since at least the printed works of the pre-Raphaelite artist, Sir John Everett Millais, in the mid to late 19th Century. Obviously, not only will different artists have different views but it depends upon the medium. (For example, is a copy of a famous painting art in its own right? That may depend upon who made the copy.) Photography creates the hardest issues because endless reproduction is possible, and in many forms. Hence, I think that publicly promulgated limitations on prints are inevitable, as a necessary way of increasing the per unit selling price per work to the consuming public - after all, if everyone in the PRC has a picture of Chairman Mao, the picture has no economic value. I therefore don't agree with the view that limited editions are imposed by art dealers, they are a inevitable economic consequence of photographers seeking to sell images for money. The means and ways by which editions are limited (or not) are themselves limited only by the imaginations of the artists. For example, I may have been more inclined to support Ctein's 'sponsorship' model of some time back, if I was wholly exclusive access to certain works. That is because exclusivity is more likely to give me a higher return on my investment.


Maybe a million or more, hard to tell, but who wood have reaped the high wind. Not Ansel (he would have been deligted to sell them all for 5000 dollars a piece), and not his estate. But some overly wealthy collectors amassing more an more wealth (the famous 1 percent (< sounds nice but in fact it's an overestemet)).

Limited editions benefit the galerists and buyers, not the photographers.


go and try to sell that wisdom to a recording artist lets say Kid Rock. If I sell a picture of chairman Mao to every Chinese home, the picture has no economic value at a 10 dollar a pop...but I will buy up Apple afterwards (or a considerable part of it). 800.000.000 times 10 = 8 billion.

"I therefore don't agree with the view that limited editions are imposed by art dealers"

In fact they are.....try dealing with an art dealer and you'll find out soon enough.

Example needed. Take Dutch photographer Fieret....he photographed all his life and in the end sold all his work (mostly nudes, all stamped on the front with his stamp, made with a Praktika and developed in whatever he could get his hands on) for 120.000 guilders (or Euro's) to an art dealer. Looked like a nice sum of money to the old man (and it was, he didn't care for money, he lived in totale wasted house, and spend his last days in a hospice were he died of pneumonia at the age of 84). The New York dealer saw the value of the pictures (her merit not Fierets BTW), and sold them to eager buyers for nice sums of money. They were limited by nature since G.P. Fieret never ordered his negatives (as memory serves). He was affraid as hell that his photo's would be stolen (his state of mind since he was a tad paranoid). After his death negatives were discovered.


Dutch only.....some English but you get the drift her, just watching the images.

Greats, Ed.

Whoops, just checked 60 x 200 is 12.000 dollar.

Greets, Ed.

Great poster of Stan and Ollie. I'd rather have that than a Leica.

Dave.... "Yes, Ansel Adams may have printed more than 600 copies of "Moonrise" and is hasn't stopped prints of that image selling for $15,000 to $25,000 or more. However, how much would prints of it sell for if he had only printed, say, 25? $200,000??? More???"...

"In 1996, Adams biographer Mary Alinder estimated that 1,300 prints of Moonrise, Hernandez had been made over 40 years -- often produced by Adams whenever an order for a copy came in, most of them done in the 1960s and ‘70s -- worth a cumulative $25 million."


"Half a million dollars wouldn’t be a record price for the Sotheby’s Moonrise, Hernandez. A smaller (14 x 19 in.) print from 1948 sold for $609,600 (est. $150,000-$250,000) at Sotheby’s New York in 2006, and a 1950 mural sized print (39 x 56 in.) from Polaroid’s collection went for $518,500 (est. $300,000-$500,000) at Sotheby’s last year."


I think it's a fair for an art buyer, whether buying from the artist or the secondary market, to be concerned about how many other prints are out there. And, although not mentioned much in the comments above, what many buyers are really interested is how "vintage" the image is--a recent print or one made way back when?

I'm all for higher sales at higher prices--all this talk of a "democratic" art form in terms of number of prints made sounds self-defeating in terms of income.

So why not have it all? Here's how it works:

1) All works are editioned. The year of the edition and print number are written on the print. "1/15, 2013 edition"
2) You print additional editions (or not, as you wish), up to one edition per year, as you see fit, enlarging or shrinking the number in each edition as you see fit.

In the end, you can print as many prints as you like. The buyer gets assurances that there won't be a zillion prints just like his out there and knows roughly where his print stands in the pecking order. He doesn't care how many you print ten years from now because his is from an earlier, more valuable edition.



I've heard talk of some photographers using sliding-scale prices (increasing with each sale or each few sales) in an open edition. That makes sense, as it lets the popular works climb to a suitable pricing level and gives you a clear-cut justification for doing so.

My life is nothing like an artist's, but I suspect lots of people would have considerable trouble doing the bookkeeping to really know how many prints were made of which negatives when in which sizes.

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