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- ESSAYS

THE NUMBERS GAME.

When I first decided to sell my images as limited edition prints, it was done, on reflection with a certain naivety. The presumption I had was that it was what everyone else was doing and was a requirement to be accepted within the photographic art market.
It’s been an issue with me and I’ve known that I have needed to consciously make a decision in favour or not of continuing with limited edition prints. The time has come! So I’ve been doing some reading. (See list below)

My conclusion; I was wrong to start with! Limited editions are not for me. That artificially limiting the size of an edition serves no purpose in regards to the quality of the print. Why is there this pretense that photography has the characteristics of another medium? The multiple nature of photography is what we should be celebrating. To deny the reproducibility of photography is to deny it’s very nature.

Two of the essays that I’ve read, one from Paul McNamara of McNamara Gallery (a specialist NZ photographic dealer gallery), and the other from Brookes Jensen, the American publisher of Lenswork Magazine have both put forward their thoughts in creating a strategy for the editioning of photographs.
McNamara lists:

1. The multiple nature of photography should be celebrated, despite market pressure to limit editions.
2. Each photographic print should be uniquely identifiable, either by numbering or editioning of prints. Absolute clarity is required. Editions can be closed where the number of prints to be produced is nominated at the outset, or open, consisting of sequentially numbered prints.
3. Artistic freedom should be nurtured.
4. The provenance of photographic prints is particularly important.


While Jensen suggests, “Any discussion of edition size must be able to stand the test of truth, both to the collector and to the artist. Edition numbers must also be truthful to the medium and based on honesty about the mechanical process as well as the realities of the market.”

The concept of limited editions seems to have been borrowed from the world of fine art printmaking where the process of making the prints actually causes incremental degradation of the original surface with each successive print made. Because it was printed from a one of a kind original that has now degraded beyond the required quality, the edition is ended with finality. In other words the editions were limited because the physical materials that created the image were themselves limited.

There is however no mechanical reason why the number of photographs should be limited. Yes there are exceptions, these might include; Polaroid originals, emulsion transfer images, or hand coloured images. But in most other photographic processes the mechanics of the processes do not degrade the original, hence there is no medium imposed limit on the edition.

Of course all artwork is limited in the end. At some point the artist will no longer be able to create their art, or they will simply tire of printing a particular image and decide to cease, maybe the materials will become unavailable or maybe damage occurs to a negative or transparency or a digital file is damaged or lost. Welcome to the world of photography! But I see little reason to second-guess the future and artificially and arbitrarily impose a limit from the beginning, other than marketing.

Ansel Adams one of the old masters of landscape photography who did not number his prints said (paraphrased) “why limit the number of prints one can make from a medium that is by nature unlimited and in which each print of an image is potentially as good as all other prints.” Yet his prints have been in high demand with high prices. Why is that? probably because of the power of the image, the extraordinary quality of the print, the name of the photographer and the recognition bequest upon him by the photographic and artistic community. Another example is the New Zealand artist Laurence Aberhart, whose image ‘Mt Taranaki under moonlight’ an open edition contact print, and one of five images that made up the work called ‘Prisoners Dream’; has now sold up to fifty prints, but he has now ceased printing it as his paper of choice for the image is no longer available. There is a waiting list if one becomes available on the secondary market (McNamara). Obviously having a large number of prints has not detracted from the value of these images. McNamara suggests that actually in a country the size of NZ, that five is more likely the number that any edition is likely to get too.

I know people buy my prints because they love the image and they connect with the image somewhere within themselves, and not because of the 1/15 written in the corner. The concept of an artificially imposed limited edition is a construct of the photographic fine art market and is only advantageous to the seller, and yes, I fell for it! Now, for me this is not being truthful to the medium of photography and the process that I use.

So what to do? Whatever is chosen a full disclosure of information is paramount as is the commitment of honesty and integrity between the buyer and myself. Where I have already introduced Limited editions on an image, I will strictly abide by that limit for those images. I may not agree with my earlier decisions, but I will honour them.

The method for the new numbered editions on new images needs to be simple, easy to administer and as above needs to be honest. It should not ignore the importance of time in the creation of the photograph or ignore the making and creative vision of the photographic artist over time.

The result is a sequentially numbered edition of prints, allowing this single edition to encompass different image sizes, if desired by the artist, and more than one printing method, but with the requirement to specify these variations on the print and in any documentation.

Therefore the titling of my images will be this:

Image name/date image created/date print made/print no./signature.

This information will be transcribed on to a print label and affixed to the back of the framing. On the front visible after matting and framing will be the print number and year of printing along with the artists signature.

In conclusion, how an artist approaches this issue is a personal choice; after all it is a free country. I love what I do. As an artist it is my desire and obligation to extend to my customers the highest possible quality and the best example of my artistic endeavors, this is also extended to the medium of photography.



Brookes Jensen 'What size is the Edition'
Paul McNamara ' An introduction to the editioning of photographs'