GRAYnomad Nature Photography :: Essays :: Editioning


My ideal is to achieve the ability to produce numberless prints from each negative, prints all significantly alive, yet indistinguishably alike, and to be able to circulate them at a price not higher than that of a popular magazine, or even a daily paper. To gain that ability there has been no choice but to follow the road I have chosen.

— Alfred Stieglitz

Editioning is the practice of releasing a finite quantity of numbered prints from a negative (or these days a file). Ask twenty photographers or curators for a recommendation on editioning and you will get twenty different answers. Frankly the whole area is a real dog's breakfast with no discernable standards.

To my mind one of the great attributes of photography is its ability to create relatively low cost original artworks that everyone can afford to enjoy. Photography is fine art for the people, and any attempt to artificially rarefy it is, in my opinion, at odds with the medium.

Rarefication will happen naturally anyhow for any number of reasons. Photographers like to move on to new images and may simply decide not to print older negatives. Vintage prints (those personally printed by the photographer shortly after the creation of the negative) are, almost by definition, limited. Photos of an unusually large or difficult format will be limited for pragmatic reasons. It's simply not worth the time and effort to make many.

In the digital world of course none of this applies, but for just about all of us rarefication will naturally occur because, let's face it, we won't be selling 1000s of prints. For the record, at the time of writing my best seller is at #128 and that's been over 20+ years.

God's Portal

Some photographers advocate the destruction of negatives after an edition has been printed. In my opinion the deliberate destruction of a negative is simply barbaric. If you have to do this to inflate the price of your images then they aren't worth the money anyhow. Rarity does not equal quality as was illustrated to me recently while walking along the lake near my home. I noticed an unusually shaped duck turd. By all visual criteria this duck turd was unique. There were (presumably) no others like it in the world and never will be. But it was still a duck turd. Its rarity added no value.

Brett Weston burned all but a handful of his negatives when he reached the age of 80. "No one can print another photographer's negatives. It's just too personal. There are infinite choices to make..." he said. I can't agree with his actions but I can go along with the sentiment behind them. He didn't burn his negatives to rarify existing prints and make more money. He believed that no-one else could interpret his negatives as he would and that there were already enough prints in existance to show posterity what he had done.

Another method used by photographers is that of increasing the cost of an image as more are sold. This effectively limits the number printed as, presumably, they will eventually reach a price that nobody will pay. It may also encourage prospective purchasers to buy now rather than later.

This technique does appeal to me but I think the administration may be to much. For example if #10 is for sale at gallery A and #20 at gallery B you are effectively selling the same thing for different prices. Is the onus on the photographer to advise buyers where the cheapest version is currently displayed?

That said, I no longer sell in galleries and probably never will again, so this approach would work for me.

One can also follow the path of not limiting your prints in general but produce portfolios occasionally that are limited editions. Once again I guess there's no more justification for limiting a portfolio that there is for limiting prints. One difference though is that portfolios are usually printed in one session (maybe over several days or weeks) and the photographer is so sick of the project by the end that he will not return to it. After viewing the resultant prints it may be possible to make up, say, 35 portfolios of which the photographer may keep five and release 30.

This last scenario is the one that currently appeals to me the most. But hey, as I said at the start, there are no rules.

Limiting editions is marketing game, it has nothing to do with the quality of an image or any prints made from it. To be fair it's a marketing game that does appear to work for some photographers, Ken Duncan and Peter Lik spring to mind. But I've never been any good at marketing and it's a model I can't follow.

It's up to you to decide whether you will limit your images but in parting think of this. Limiting and asking for high prices may make some sales to a few wealthy art collectors (and I say "may") whereas being more reasonably priced should see your photos hung in hundreds of houses and offices throughout the world.

Assuming that money is not the driving force behind your photography (if it was you would not be photographing landscapes) then surely the second option is preferable.