Monday, 24 December 2018

How limited are 'limited editions?'

As someone who sells prints to serious and discerning collectors, the vexed question of 'is this a limited edition' crops up now and again. I say now and again, as most people understand that photography is not a medium that should be a natural home for artificially restricting how many prints of a particular photograph might be printed. As we will see, this is all a bit of a red herring in photographic terms anyway.
Iris No.9, 2018 Platinum print

Limiting how many prints can be made from a particular image came originally from fine art printing such as etchings, lithographs and silk screen prints. In these examples the editions were inherently limited anyway, due to how many prints might be pulled from a screen or etching plate before it began to wear and the image deteriorate. It is also a tradition to deface or destroy the screen or plate so no more can be made. To destroy a negative would, for 99% of photographers be an unthinkable act of creative, photographic and social documentary history vandalism. I don't know one photographer who would ever contemplate such a thing. Most photographers embrace the aspect of the medium which makes it possible, in theory anyway, to make multiple prints over many years from a negative making photography a very 'democratic' medium. How often this actually happens in practice however, is very much another matter. 

Iris No.8, 2018 Platinum print
When I print a new photograph for the first time I might make two or three prints at the time and unless they are destined for exhibition somewhere right away, are stored in my archival print boxes for possible future exhibition or sale. In all the years that I have been selling original, archival gelatin / silver and platinum prints, (over fifty), through galleries, directly to collectors and public art collections, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of one particular image that I have made more than four or five prints of for sale. This just happens to be a feature of much photographic print sales, it's extremely rare for any photographer to sell that many copies of a particular image. So-called 'limited editions' don't get much more limited than that!

Artichoke No. 3, 2017 Platinum print

It's true however, that some galleries make a point of or even force the photographers whose work they handle to stipulate that prints are part of an 'edition'. Here we discover that this is a bit of an artificial ruse to inflate the price, (not the value, they are two different things) of the prints. Firstly, serious professional galleries know their client base and the relative demand for individual photographer's work very well indeed. An 'edition' then - and this applies to all galleries selling paper-based artwork, will be set at a number that can reasonably be expected to sell, plus a few more 'just in case'. This can be five, ten, twenty five, 100, whatever. Yes, the 'edition' might truly be 'limited' but in reality the gallery will ensure that it's in line with expected sales, so in effect, not limited at all. In the unlikely event of a so-called 'limited edition' selling out, the gallery will more than likely re-issue the same image in another form or size and call this yet another 'edition'. Not illegal, not really 'sharp practice' and it would only apply to a tiny minority of photographic works but it does underline the nonsense of so-called 'limited editions'. Even then, the total numbers of photographic prints made is tiny as compared with other works on paper.
Globe Artichoke No. 2, 2017 Platinum print

When you see something described as a 'limited edition' you do need to take this with a pinch of salt. However, when you buy an original, hand-made, archival silver / gelatin or platinum print from a reputable gallery or photographer, you can be certain that it will be a very special artefact which may even have been especially printed to order for you and not a mass-produced item. Also, as a hand-made print produced in a darkroom, even if there happens to be more than one or two in circulation, you can pretty much guarantee that there will be subtle differences in each print making them all truly individual.
Pete's original prints can be seen and purchased at Ffotogallery Y Gofeb

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