Image (c) Michael Ormerod.
It began in the 1970s, and only really got going in the UK in the late 80s, but editioning photographic prints has swiftly become the norm in the art market. However, while it may now be standard practice, there's no standard for how you number limited editions, or any guide to what you can charge for them. Getting it right remains a matter of considered judgement.
"It really varies," says Debra Klomp of New York's Klompching Gallery. "I can only tell you about the things we consider."
One of the key tasks is deciding how to limit the edition, figuring out how many prints to make of each image. This is influenced by a number of factors, but one of the biggest is how well the image might sell, as it's not advisable to end up with more prints than you can shift. Most gallerists prefer to try and sell editions quickly, creating a buzz around an artist that will hopefully push up pricing for future editions.
It's a simple case of demand and supply says Richard Kalman of Crane Kalman gallery in Brighton, adding that collectors are not just buying what they like, they are making an investment, and therefore they need assurance that a photographer has a market. "You want prices to go up," he says. "It's good to be able to point to a catalogue from two years ago and show that prices have increased."
Many photographers now limit each edition to five prints, he adds, while anything beyond 30 is probably pushing your luck, unless you're very well known. Some photographers create editions of one, but, of course, the smaller the edition, the more you'll need to charge. If you aren't very well known, you'll probably need to sell more for less. "I heard about an MA student selling an edition of one for £50,000," laughs Kalman. "That's pretty bold! But it could work - if one person buys it, it will get him a lot of attention."
The size of the print is also a factor, because a large print will cost more time and money to produce, and will therefore need to command a higher price. Again, unknown photographers might have trouble shifting a huge print, although this isn't the only factor at play.
Edward Burtynsky famously creates prints at 120×150cm or more, which he argues is necessary to appreciate the level of detail in his work. Phil Toledano, meanwhile, recently joined the Klompching Gallery with a body of work called A New Kind of Beauty, a series of portraits of subjects who have undergone sometimes extreme plastic surgery. The larger-than-life size of the prints allows viewers to really study the subjects' physiognomies. "They're printed at 50×60cm, in an edition of three," says Klomp. "We fully supported him in printing them at that size, but we have to be realistic about how many will actually sell."
To complement these large sizes, however, both Toledano and Burtynksy create smaller images, which are sold in larger, though still limited, editions. Toledano's smaller size is sold in an edition of six, for example, while Burtynksy creates a small, medium and large version of each image, sold in editions of 10, nine and six respectively. "The bigger the size, the smaller the edition," says Chris Littlewood, who is director of photography at Flowers Galleries and looks after Burtynsky's work. "But Burtynsky always keeps the total number of prints under 30 [per image]."
Price is right
Price, of course, is a big factor, as it will also influence the speed at which an edition sells or stagnates. When pricing an edition, Klomp says she considers the amount of time a photographer spent on the image, including the time they spent researching and building up the project.
Unfortunately, in cash terms, that won't always reflect all the hard work that went into image. Both Klomp and Kalman advise setting prices at a conservative level for your first edition of prints - just as it's better to sell out a print run, it's better to gradually increase prices than cut them. If not, you risk antagonising collectors who have already taken the plunge, and create the impression that you're faltering.
This increase can happen slowly over time, but it also can happen over a single edition of work, which is often priced on a sliding scale these days. The first five prints will be the cheapest, the next five more expensive, and so on, creating a premium for prints that become more rare as they sell out. These increments may or may not be made public from the off. If they are, the gallerist will have to pitch it carefully from the start. If they aren't, they can see how quickly
the prints sell and take their cue from that.
It's a relatively recent phenomenon and, like editioning itself, started in the US. Keith Cavanagh, who once handled print sales at the Tom Blau Gallery and now sells prints by photographers such as Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton and Brian Griffin, has some reservations, but says it makes sense if an image is getting a good reaction.
He's much less enthusiastic about another innovation though - selling "artists' proofs". Originally these were an essential part of the process, because they were the approved version the printer matched to. These days, with many photographers setting up a colour profile for their image file and making digital prints as and when they're needed, they're arguably completely redundant, but are becoming increasingly popular. Photographers are creating multiple versions and selling them, at a premium, when the limited edition sells out.
"Artists' proofs were sometimes sold in the past if the edition sold out, but now photographers are making three or four or more," says Cavanagh. "They are really creating another mini edition but, as proofs aren't numbered, an unscrupulous person could do an unlimited number. I disapprove."
Cavanagh's remarks touch upon a moot point in limited-edition printing - trust. Given that photographs are infinitely reproducible, collectors only have the photographer and gallery's word that limited editions really are limited, and will take an extremely dim view if more prints come to light. Klomp says she would stop working with a photographer if she realised they'd been making extra prints, and adds that issuing a further edition after the event is "career suicide".
"I encourage photographers to do their own prints to build up an archive of their work," she says. "It's their legacy, and they may need them for exhibitions, but I advise them not to make extra prints, even for their friends. We'd lose all trust from our collectors, and we can't have that."
However, it is acceptable to create another print for a collector if their copy has become faded or damaged. The spoilt print must be destroyed altogether, and the new one is then given the same number to take its place in the edition. It's all part of keeping up a relationship with the collector, which is essential if they are to follow the artist's work in future.
Photographers and their gallerists also need to keep careful track of which prints are sold to whom - if an artist gets a big museum show and doesn't have a copy of a print, they will need to be able to borrow a copy from one of their collectors. If a new copy is made, it will have to stay strictly off the market, otherwise the integrity of the original edition will again come into question.
It's a sensitive business and some advisors, Cavanagh among them, question whether photographic prints should be limited at all. Limiting an edition used to relate to litho printing and the quality of the plates - after 100 prints, say, a plate would no longer be as accurate and would therefore be rejected. These days that's no longer relevant and, says Cavanagh, limiting editions can be seen as an artificial way of slotting photography into the fine-art market, traditionally centred around one-off, irreplaceable works. "If a photographer has a great image, I say why limit it?" he tells BJP. "Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams never limited their prints."
Adams is an interesting example though, as Cavanagh himself points out. He made his own prints and there are often multiple versions of the same image, but the earlier ones tend to fetch more at auction because they're considered higher quality. As Adams got older, it's argued, his eyesight started to fail, and his prints started to lose their subtle tonality. This touches on another important factor - the concept of the vintage print.
As the name suggests, vintage prints are older prints, and in general the older they are, the more valuable they are. From an investment perspective, a print made shortly after the image was shot is the ideal; later prints made, say, by the photographer's estate after he or she dies won't garner the same prices - even if it's of higher quality in other respects. The idea of the artist's hand and the authenticity of the art work holds hard, even in this most reproducible of media.
It may sound odd, but for Klomp, creating a limited edition is key. "If you create an open edition you are telling the people who are buying it that it isn't a special object," she says. "You're not just selling an image, you're selling an artefact. People are very interested in the prints - they want to know if it's an inkjet or a C-type or a handprint, and I've even had people ask which paper and which batch number the work is printed on. Photographers need to have a record of exactly how the print is made because they will be asked." BJP
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