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Are limited editions dishonest?

Are limited editions about making money? Milking the value of whatever you have produced? My view on limited editions for anything other than fine art printmaking has just changed. Why? A result of a conversation with a photographer yesterday. And this image of a sheep produced using Brushes on my iPhone a couple of years ago is also implicated in my change of mind.
Background first. Limited edition prints are standard in printmaking and have been from the 19th century. The reason for this is that there is a real reason for a limited edition: depending on the material used to create the print, the edition is limited by how much printing the material will take before the image begins to degrade. So, with a lino cut, woodcut, collograph, dry point etc, the base material degrades and the line used to create the image can become fuzzy and the print quality poor, so it is normal to limit the edition quite drastically. For etching onto metal plates the print run can be higher, especially if copper is the base plate. (New editions runs have even been produced from Rembrandt plates, producing fine prints today, for example.) However, this is expensive so often zinc (very soft) is used. Steel is mid range in terms of its price and durability.
These days we find limited editions of a whole range of things, even clothes. To my mind this is meaningless, its simply about monetizing the object artificially, creating a special value where there may or may not have been one simply by making the object limited, difficult to get hold of, or even rare. One aspect of limited editions in particular that riles me is the pretentious practice of ‘giclée’ fine art prints. This is a fancy French term for a high quality ink jet print onto archival paper. Artists then (in theory anyway) limit the edition of prints produced and bump up the price, giving the print some status beyond that of simply being a reproduction or the original work of art. The other things that bugs me about this is that I think it really does pull the wool over the eyes of the public at large. Many people buying giclée prints think they are buying something with special value (OK, it may have been signed and dated by the artist), and it undermines the real purpose and value of a genuinely produced printmaking series, where each print pulled is unique, because its hand produced, and the edition has to be limited because of the process involved.
However, photographers do limited editions of their photographs, and so do digital artists. The take on this I got yesterday when I explained that I refused to limit editions of my digital prints convinced me that there may after all be a good reason for limiting an edition of digital images including photographs. The photographer I was talking to said that by producing limited editions of his work he is able to move on, to leave behind the editions of last year, not display them any more, and get on with new work, unimpeded by potential interest and sales of previous work. Back to my sheep, which was on show at Open Studios in Sheffield this weekend. I knew it should not be there since it had been in last year’s show, but I knew too that it was popular, but it irritated me that I had succumbed to putting it in the exhibition, since it demonstrated to me that I hadn’t moved on and committed to my new work fully. Now, IF I had limited the edition of this image, it wouldn’t have been there …….


Posted by author: Jane Parry
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14 thoughts on “Are limited editions dishonest?

  • ‘The photographer I was talking to said that by producing limited editions of his work he is able to move on, to leave behind the editions of last year, not display them any more, and get on with new work, unimpeded by potential interest and sales of previous work.’
    This seems like a curious justification to me. It appears to conflate making art with selling art. What would musical culture be like if there was no access to the back catalogue because song writers and musicians found their old work distracting?

  • Perhaps the practise of limited edition giclees dated from the time that commercial printing costs used to be partly dependant on plate changing and setting up, so that a print run was pre-fixed at a specific number partly for practical reasons and costs.
    These days (I’m told by friends) the printer keeps the digital file and prints a few copies off as and when needed, the plate changing and setting up isn’t relevant because the printing process has changed.
    Artists still keep doing limited edition reproductions because that’s how it used to be done and its become a sign of authenticity.
    Personally I stick to very labour intensive messy ways of printmaking, I don’t make anything to sell, so the number I print is limited by my own desire to keep working. Then when they do sell I tend to wish I’d done more!

  • I read of a photographer a few years ago who made his edition and then sliced up the negative, presenting a portion of it with the print – there would never be another edition from the negative, although of course there can be reproductions made via alternative means… I can’t remember the photographers name, although if I really wanted to, I guess some googling will dig it up.
    Also, HCB produced open editions of his work, and it still has value, although there has to be some proof of the link to the man for that to be the case, I guess (i.e. he printed it, rather than someone else).
    Personally, I print from open editions too – it means that if I ever get the demand, I can carry on earning… I don’t see the point of limiting my potential artificially for the sake of the resale value at auction (or wherever), which I wouldn’t see the benefit of. Of course, I might change my mind in time.

  • ‘I read of a photographer a few years ago who made his edition and then sliced up the negative, presenting a portion of it with the print – there would never be another edition from the negative.’
    Yes I remember that practice, for me it goes against one of the fundamental properties of photography; that it is infinitely reproducible. I believe that collectors should appreciate the photograph they own as an image and an object, not for its exclusivity.
    As Rob points out there are still ways of differentiating them as editions for the purposes of marketing; the printing process and the work-flow, whether that includes the photographer or not, and the signing of work.

  • The art market is no less prone to sacrificing everything to the god of profit, it’s the fundamental driving force of capitalism after all (and any who know me will know my views on that!) As I understand it, if one goes to Ansel Adams (American Modernist landscape photographer and maker of Fine Prints) outlet in the US, one can or at least could buy prints of his work in three different states, those made by the master himself (only the very richest need apply!) those made by his assistant from the copious notes on printing that AA made and authorised by AA (very expensive but an order of magnitude less than the first) and those made by the same assistant, from the same notes but after the death of AA and so not personally authorised (expensive but cheap compared to the other two) and all in limited, numbered editions. I have yet to hear of anyone who could tell the difference by looking at them but as Andy Warhol showed, you can make a lot of money selling signatures!
    Incidentally, the term ‘giclée’ for ink-jet prints (do look up its meaning in a French dictionary of common usage!) was thought up as a joke but of course money has no sense of humour!

    • The problem with these sorts of sales is that most often it is not the artist who is selling the work but someone else selling it second hand and the artist gets nothing. I have a feeling that in this case Sherman get the dosh but that is rare. the economics of being an artist are frightening and all the general public see is the inflated price paid to s collector or gallery for second hand goods. (Do I sound bitter? :))

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