It’s time someone opened up this can of worms and dumped them all over the place.
I have been a strong advocate against the “limited edition” print for many years. As you have probably noticed I do not offer “limited editions”. In this day and age of computers, digital files, cloud storage, and perpetual information, the actual limiting of physical prints is a non enforceable proposition. That is to say, it is bogus. It is used as a marketing ploy for the sole purpose of raising the price of prints.
Let me explain.
I realize the following information may indeed upset some photographic artists. Truthfully, it may make them down right angry. That is not the purpose of this information. Though I would hope they realize the faulty nature of the limiting of editions if they practice such methods. First off, it’s big news in the art world, that of “limited editions”. Only serious artists, or high quality art is produced in limited editions, right? Hang on to your hat…. No. Not only No, but not even close. As a matter of fact, it has nothing to do with the art or the artists.
Limiting Of Editions
So what is the big deal with “limited editions”? The big deal is, those who make claims to their art as “limited” believe potential customers, clients, and collectors, will pay more if they believe it is limited. The thing is, they are right. Limited edition prints are always more expensive than non-limited edition prints. Are they worth more because they are better? No. Are they worth more because there is a limited supply of them? Here is where the “slight of hand” takes place. Artwork, of most any kind can be (and rightfully so) more valuable if there are limited editions of the art. So why wouldn’t limited edition prints be worth more than non-limited edition prints. In theory, they could be. But one does not deal in “theory” when purchasing art, or at least they shouldn’t. Owners of such art need to know that in fact the “limited edition” art they are purchasing is truly limited. How do they know this? The artists says so. Period, end of discussion. Hmm, does that sound like an explanation based in facts, or one based in, “just because I say so”.
To fully understand the bases of the limited edition one should have a good understanding of how it began.
The limited edition in photography is inherited from artistic tradition. The entire idea of the “limited edition” is a concept borrowed from the world of fine art printmaking. The “original” was a plate or stone marked on or carved on by the artist. Marking on or into this printing surface (typically wood, limestone, or copper) the artist made a printing plate. Prints were then made from this one of a kind plate, using the wood, stone, or metal plate as an ink delineator. Not dissimilar to the way a modern day rubber stamp is used. The process of applying ink to the printing plate, wiping it off, pressing it onto the surface (such as paper) to receive the ink to make “the print” – all done with repetition would physically begin to wear down the plate. The more prints that were squeezed and pulled from the printing plate the more the resulting image would suffer. Editions of such prints were numbered because the physical materials in which to make images were themselves limited. They would simply wear out beyond the point in which they could continue making prints. At this point they were worthless and would be thrown away. If by chance the artists wanted to make more prints they would have to physically carve another plate. Since no two plates could ever be hand carved exactly the same the result would be a slightly different print from the new plate.
Fast forward to today’s technology of either film produced from a negative in the wet darkroom or digital produced from digital information on a computer, the physical limitations of producing a print no longer exists. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands, of prints may be produced from a single negative or digital file. There is no degradation to either the negative or digital file when a print is made.
How To Limit Today’s Prints
There is only one way to limit a print today. After the predetermined limit is reached the artist must never ever print it again, forever! I simply can not believe an artists would destroy his or her work for this self imposed limitation that guarantees a truly limited edition. I admit, I am skeptical by nature, but I have tested my skepticism. Not long ago I participated in a conversation in an online photography forum of photographers, many making their living selling their work. The subject brought up was, limited editions and whether most photographers offered them or recommended other photographers offer them. What I soon found out was mentioned in the opening paragraph of this essay. Those who offer limited editions get very upset when anyone suggested it is simply a ploy to charge higher prices. My theory was confirmed when I suggested that if a photograph was truly intended to be limited to a specific number of prints the artist/creator should destroy the negative or digital file when the number of editions were reached. Thus guaranteeing no more prints could ever be made of that image. Side Note: we all are very aware many copies of a digital files can be made quickly and easily. When I suggested this, one would have thought I had just suggested setting your hair on fire. Folks thought that was a stupid and completely unnecessary thing to do. Some even admitted, and this is what verified my theory, that just because they sold print “A” as a limited edition print did not mean they couldn’t print it for other uses such as for publications, calendars, cards etc. Okay, a 5×7 inch note card is not the same thing as a 16×20 inch print, I get it. But what are we attempting to justify here? The number of prints of print “A” that exist in the world, or the price we charge for it? This needs to be understood, even agreed upon by both the creator and the future owners of print “A”. I really thought my eyes were going to roll completely around in my head when I read these comments. So, some artists, maybe many, who offer “limited” prints think it’s perfectly fine to keep printing it for other purposes after the limit is reached. How is that limiting the print? How does that guarantee a finite number of prints? We all know, whether we admit it or not, it does not make any such guarantee and in fact makes such guarantees meaningless.
Yes the dreaded “ethics” clause. Is there an ethics clause for limited edition prints? I have never heard of one, but one does indeed exist, it must. Due to the fact there are no outside factors that would cause a print to be limited today. The hard part about it is, it must be self imposed. About as hard as not eating that chocolate chip cookie right in front of you when you love chocolate chip cookies. Self imposed restraint. Self imposed limits. Self imposed limiting of potential profit. That last one is the kicker, the one artists don’t want to talk about.
This information is meant to be more than just my opinion. Hopefully I have provided sufficient detail to make the case that limited edition prints is an artificially, self imposed limitation, created by the artists, to be placed on themselves. Furthermore, the purpose of the limited edition is one of pure marketing tactics. To be very blunt, price manipulation. It only works if the artists imposes limitations on their own work. By nature this is not what artists want to do if they are in the business of selling their work.
Limiting prints is something I will not do and this is why. I will not destroy my work just so only a predetermined number of people may own it. That does not make sense to me. With that open and honest statement I can not, or more accurately, will not, guarantee a predetermined limit. The moral side of this is, it is wrong on many levels for me to set arbitrary future limitations on my work when I can not predict the future. It is also a well known fact that most predefined limits that photographers place on their work are never met. The fancy looking (1/250) or (1 of 250) depicting the first print of a limit of 250, is in all practicality, meaningless.
Here is one more thing to keep in mind. Prints should, in all practicality get better with each printing. Artists should continually be improving their methods, or at least trying to improve their methods. New technologies (printers, inks, media) should always be of the highest standards available when a print is made. Artists views, interpretations, and vision of their work can and in many instances do change with time as well, I know mine do. So in reality, the last and final print of the edition should in fact be the best of the bunch. But as already mentioned, in 99% of all cases, will never be made.
There you have it. Limited editions in a nutshell. There is much more that can be said on this subject. There always will be. But for now I will leave you with this; own the art you love, not just like, and certainly do not own art just because you think it is an investment. Art is and should be personal, do not treat it like money because it is not. It is meant to enrich your life, touch those places that you hold dear, and bring years of pleasure to you each and every time you view it. When this is the case you will have made a wise and lasting purchase.