The editioning photographic prints has in recent years become the norm in the art market. However, while it may now be standard practice, there's no standard for how to number limited editions, or any guide to what can be charged for them. Getting it right remains a matter of considered judgement.
Deciding how to limit the edition is influenced by a number of factors. Given rapid commodification of the art market, one factor is how well the image might sell. 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.
The size of the print is also a consideration, 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 creates prints at 120×150cm or more, which he argues is necessary to appreciate the level of detail in his work. To complement these large sizes, 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".
Then there is the issue of 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 are really the creation of another mini edition, but as proofs aren't numbered, an unscrupulous person could do an unlimited number. Not a good idea.
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, 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 limiting editions can be seen as an artificial way of slotting photography into the fine-art market, traditionally centered around one-off, irreplaceable works. It's interesting to note that Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams never limited their prints.
Adams is an interesting example. 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.
For some 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. 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.
Edited from the British Journal of Photography, December 29, 2010