Limited Editions?

I’ve never been in favour of ‘limited editions’ of photographs. It has always seemed to me to be a repudiation of one of the intrinsic properties of our medium, its reproducibility.

It also seemed unnecessary, as most photographs are produced as actual photographic prints in relatively limited numbers – few photographers sell more than a few copies of any image as actual photographic prints, although they may get reproduced in thousands or even millions in newspapers, magazines, books or images on screen. Paradoxically while limited editions have been seen and marketed as a way to artificially produce scarcity, in many cases they will actually have resulted in more prints of an image being made.

Over the years many photographers have indulged in dubious practices on limited editions in various ways. Often an edition is not actually printed, but prints are actually made to demand, and may differ significantly from each other. Others have produced several limited editions from the same original – a practice that would be acceptable if made clear at the time that the first was being marketed, but perhaps not if decided on at a later date.

Of course there are positive aspects of limited editions. Some photographers like them because they feel they enable them to put a finish to older work and allow them to concentrate on new projects. Others see them as a useful marketing tool to make a living, and I’ve nothing against photographers making a living, although there are photographers who have managed it without limited editions.

The recent sale record-breaking sale of new prints of old work by William Eggleston has raised some interesting questions, not least about limited editions, with one major collector of his work who owns a number of his limited edition dye-transfer prints suing over the new limited edition of these same photographs. The details of the case so far are well covered in the three links from PDN Online that I won’t go into them further. It’s also interesting to read about them and the possible museum in Eggleston’s home town MemphisNewsPaper.

But this case also raises interesting questions about the photographic obsession with ‘vintage prints’, with the new large ‘pigment prints’ selling for an order of magnitude more than the orginal dye transfer edition. Possibly because they are better prints (though I’ve not had the chance to compare) and almost certainly because they are larger.

The new Eggleston prints are inkjet prints, or as the galleries prefer to call them ‘digital pigment prints.’  I don’t know on what paper, printer or inks these were made, but they are basically similar to those many of us can produce on our own printers, except for the size of 44″ x 60.

Craig J Sterling on Beyond the F-Stop  comments “the digital print, in my opinion, has finally been legitimized … yes!”  Looking around the giant dealer trade show in Paris eighteen months ago I’d certainly come to the same opinion, although as with these prints the labels went to great lengths not to include ‘I’ word; “inkjet” is still taboo in the trade. Sterling has also written about Limited Edition Prints, and includes the idea that it only became possible to produce true editions of photographs with the advent of digital – in the darkroom every print is an individual performance.

Although I rather doubt if the case against Eggleston will be successful (but I’m not a lawyer) it may perhaps serve to make photographers rather more careful particularly in those US states that have laws about editioning of art works. But what I would really like to see is more photographers adopting a democratic rather than an elitist stance towards selling photographs.

Eggleston’s work doesn’t need to be printed huge, and I’ve often thought that much if not all of it works better in books than on the exhibition wall (and the same is true of most photographs.)  You can buy a copy of his ‘The Democratic Forest’, arguably his best book, for around £30 if you shop around, which gets you not just one but a sequence of 150 of his images for something like $578,460 less than that single large image of a tricycle. I know which makes more sense.

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