Editioning of art photographs
Originally published as two posts in www.PhotographyMatters.com, July 2008.
Wanganui-based photographic art dealer Paul McNamara has written a discussion paper for the topic of the editioning of photographic prints. I find myself basically in agreement with his position on all of the points he discusses. http://www.mcnamara.co.nz/news.html (Scroll to lower part of page for this text.) [Also, please bear in mind that this is an archived page and may not accurately reflect the writer's current view. It is here for reference to the following articles.]
There will be a panel discussion at Webb’s Auction rooms, Auckland, on Monday evening, 21st July, with the panel: P. McNamara, John B. Turner, Fiona Amundsen, Claire Bruell. Webb’s are holding their third (I think) purely photographic auction, and I can thoroughly recommend the catalogue. www.webbs.co.nz (see beneath the auction of motorcycles…).
It is interesting that the auction houses of Webb and Art+Object http://www.artandobject.co.nz/Home are the primary drivers of the photographic market in Auckland, and no-one (for some time) has had the bottle to open a specialist photography gallery there. I expect something will happen soon on that front. It would be great to get your opinion on both Paul’s discussion paper and the Auckland fine art photography/gallery scene.
by james | 17 July, 2008
Editioning of photographs: some further points for discussion
While I find myself in agreement with Paul McNamara’s discussion points, as per my recent posting, there is a couple of issues raised in the introduction to the panel discussion on page 11 of Webb’s Contemporary/Modern & Historical Photography auction catalogue (written by Emma Fox?) that I would like to expand upon.
Para 2: … The difference between digital and negative is particularly interesting, as each hand-printed work will be different [almost imperceptibly] to any other. Digital printing, on the other hand, is often carried out by someone other than the photographer, so editioning becomes rather more important.
In the past, much hand-printing has been done by people other than the photographer, both in black and white and colour photographic printing. In NZ, colour prints were almost always made in commercial labs and the photographers usually had very little or nothing to do with the process.
By contrast, digital printing is now more usually done by the photographer, or in a much closer working relationship with the printer than was generally feasible in the past. Current technology offers photographers far greater control over the image making and printing process than they ever had in the past, comparable to and in fact exceeding the creative control and potential of the darkroom. Therefore a great level of individual craft in digital printmaking is coming about.
One can always make quality comparisons between digital prints and silver gelatin or the various colour photographic printing processes; and we will have to learn to accept that they are different. It’s a bit like comparing music recordings on CD and vinyl. Each medium has its advantages and disadvantages, and they are different. Most music appreciators have both vinyl and CDs in their collections.
While the technology available to the darkroom practitioner took its last leap forward with the introduction of variable contrast printing paper in the 1980s (which many would argue didn’t improve print quality, only convenience), technology in the digital printing field improves significantly each year, and this is noticeable to the untutored eye.
Photographers Peter Black and Julian Ward—both four-decade darkroom veterans—have taken to pigment-based digital printing processes for the control and quality now available in consumer hardware, software and materials; something that was not available previously in colour photographic printing. They both approach the digital printing process as they did the hand-printing process, that is with great care, fastidiousness and a passion for the quality of the medium, and they are now producing prints that have fine qualities and are objects in their own right.
The range of archival-quality pigments continues to expand, and their combination with the various choices of paper surfaces and weights, colours and textures make possible different feels; much as, in the past, one researched, discussed and agonised over the various silver gelatin papers, developing chemicals and toners on offer and the effects of their combination. And these new materials [papers and pigments for digital printing] are not cheap! If you want economy, stick to the darkroom or get a commercial lab to do your printing. The world authority on permanence of these materials is Wilhelm Research - http://www.wilhelm-research.com (also see them for photographic materials, and storage and care).
As I mentioned, there is a level of craft building around digital printing. But for the general public, this is hard to appreciate. Most people in NZ have access to a computer and some kind of colour printer, and you don’t even need Photoshop. Free software such as Picasa tidies a photo up nicely, then you just hit the Print key. So what is there to it?
Well, there was never much to darkroom printing either, at a basic level anyway. Most schools, universities, newspaper offices, camera clubs and many hobbyists had darkrooms, (but they’re now going the way of the moa); the basic processes could be learned in an hour or so and hand-made silver gelatin prints were commonplace. Most of them, though, were crap, (meaning not of a quality intended for photographic exhibitions). It’s the same with digital prints.
It is the perception of the digital printing process being common and straightforward that leads to this new demand for limited edition printing. An example from my own work: for Fotofest ’98 I produced a set of prints using a Kodak dye-sublimation printer, which uses a printing process that is now nearly obsolete. I made one copy of each print, and four copies each of a couple of key images. Those were early examples of digital prints that are not now reproducible, mostly unique, and of high quality. Recently one was sold; a unique vintage print and valued no less than fibre-based silver gelatin prints I made around the same time. The same thing will occur with digital prints made now; that is, available materials will change, as will hardware and software, so a print a photographer makes in 2008 from a current photograph will probably not be able to be recreated in the same way in, say, 2014. And digital exhibition prints will acquire provenance in the same way as their analogue forbears. (There are some of these in the Webb’s photo auction.) Galleries and collectors are now valuing these new works, rather than just being nostalgic for good old-fashioned silver gelatin.
The international model around editions has a rising scale; as each work in the edition sells, the price increases …. If the international trend is for stepped pricing of editions, then I’m against it. (Actually, I don’t believe it is.) Stepped pricing is, in my opinion, a distasteful marketing ploy which can also backfire on the photographer and the gallery. I have occasionally used it at Photospace gallery when it has been the artist’s established method of pricing, but I don’t advocate it and will resist it in future.
What happens over an exhibiting photographer’s career, if it is successful, is that prices naturally increase with the demand for and maturation of that person’s work. In a small market like NZ, editions don’t tend to sell out that quickly, even small editions like 3-5 prints; so let the price be determined by the gallery and the photographer as the work is sold. There is no need to premeditate the pricing structure when the edition is first available. In reality, it can take years, even decades, for a limited edition to sell out, and many never do, so why impose strictures such as stepped pricing? Obviously, the North American and European markets are different to NZ, in that editions do tend to sell out, sometimes even before or during the exhibition opening—wouldn’t that be nice—so different considerations apply.
That raises the question of second or further editions of the same work. In the USA they’ve been doing that for ages, making the second edition easily discernable from the first by, for example, printing on a different size of paper. In NZ, forget it. If you declare a limited edition and it sells out, that’s the end of it. And I strongly advise photographers not to cheat on this: you will be found out, as there is a very small community of galleries dealing with photography and not that many collectors either. Further, one shouldn’t try to squeeze around the issue with endless Artist’s Proofs or undesignated prints; same applies. I have encountered some pretty iffy provenances on prints by some leading photographers who shall here remain nameless.
Paul McNamara mentions that he attempts to determine the number of prints made wherever possible. I agree; it is up to the dealer to investigate this. Exhibiting photographers, though, should keep proper records of their own and make sure they record the relevant information physically on each print and replicate it visibly on the back of the frame (because dealers don’t enjoy pulling frames and mounts apart to find out stuff and then have to have them professionally reassembled).
My advice to photographers, regardless of whether they work with analogue or digital printing, is to keep accurate records next to the originals, and to record information on each print, something like:
Posters, Victoria St, Wellington, 11/11/1996 – print #1, July 1998 J.D. Gilberd
I recommend open editions but have no problem with realistic limited editions if the photographer prefers. Paul McNamara and I, as the only two specialist photography dealers in NZ, present a consistent opinion on this matter. I feel there is a case for smaller limited editions as a vehicle for easing digital printing into the collector market, in order to overcome natural apprehensions, but things ought soon to revert to standard. Another point: it is usual for a photographer to give a print to the subject of a portrait, or when private property has been photographed. Here are two possible approaches to this.(i) Information is clearly noted on the reverse of the print to differentiate it from any future edition made.
For example:#1 of 2 prints gifted by J.D. Gilberd to Ms A. Summers as thanks for permission to photograph, July 2008.
Also, I would not sign or number this print, but note its existence in my records.(ii) Alternatively, one might gift a numbered print from the actual edition, which would be preferable, more generous and generally less confusing. However, at the time of gifting the print, it may not be known whether the work will ever enter the photographer’s oeuvre; it may be a simple gift and not printed to exhibition standard, therefore it may be inappropriate to number it. So, this is a common issue of provenance but not an easy one to resolve. Gifted prints and work prints (sub-exhibition quality) do come up for sale. I have sold some myself, priced accordingly and with the buyer being made aware of the known or suspected provenance.
[Note: Paul McNamara has since clarified my thinking on this point. All prints should be serial numbered, whether they are gifted, sold or retained. Also, there is really no need for such a thing as an Artist's Proof (AP) in photography; it is a hangover import from other printing disciplines. Simple, really.]
More advice to photographers then: whatever you do, don’t allow loose, undesignated prints to drift out of your possession, as gifts, copies for scanning or whatever. Their existence creates confusion and they may come back and bite you, even decades later. This also applies to printable digital files.
Regarding the multiple nature of photographs as artworks: well, I have been saying for some time that the existence of multiple prints of a photograph can make it more valuable, not less, (up to a point, but one that hasn’t ever been reached in NZ as far as I’m aware). This is especially true if the image finds its way into institutional collections and important private collections. Given a choice between a photograph that no one else has ever purchased and is quite likely unique, and one by the same photographer that happens to also be in, say, the Jim Barr and Mary Barr collection and in Te Papa, many collectors would prefer the latter. These are also the photographs that tend to get reviewed, exhibited and published, increasing their value further.
I imagine collectors of Ferrari sports cars would love to own some unique concept model, but are happy to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for essentially the same car that anyone else who can afford it can go and purchase. The existence of thousands of other cars like it doesn’t decrease the pleasure of driving the thing; and neither does the existence of other prints of a photograph decrease the pleasure of owning and viewing a single print of it. Unless one is Scrooge. This is to say, no amount of theorising will change basic human nature one jot: we are all, to some extent, greedy, selfish individualists. I’m not remotely implying that art collectors are greedy and selfish (actually, many are philanthropic), but that collectors on one hand and artists and dealers on the other are never really going to see eye to eye on this matter of editioning. The more information that is out there for discussion and assimilation, such as on this blog and in Webb’s catalogue and the panel discussion they are generously hosting, the better.
Paul McNamara also raises the topic of the Vintage Print, and this is a concept that could do with further discussion. It is, in photography, often the nearest something comes to being an original, as the print made contemporaneously with the act of photographing is in some way invested with the momentary creative vision. It captures the way the photographer was seeing and printing at that time. It is true that later prints may be technically superior, but there is often something about the vintage print/s that seems to associate itself with concepts of originality and uniqueness (however outdated and shot down by P.M. theory those concepts now are). And often also, they feel like more of an object than later prints, as containing the original enthusiasm and intense interest of the photographer, the attachment to the idea of the particular photograph that the later print may seem to lack by distance of time. The other thing is, a photographer doesn’t usually rush into the darkroom and make ten or twenty ‘vintage’ prints; they are made only according to demand, which would mean seldom more than a few prints are made.
This is the same with digital printing, because it is expensive and time consuming, so one doesn’t go: good, I’ve cracked it, now let’s print twenty of the buggers. In NZ, scenic landscape photographs produced primarily for the tourist market may come in editions of 25 to 50, and that is all well and good, but it doesn’t impinge on or reflect the practise of photographers who make prints for dealer galleries and institutional exhibitions. This posting has obviously got a bit coffee-fueled, and I’m grasping for ways of expressing some difficult concepts. It could do with some revision but I wanted to get the thing posted before Monday’s panel discussion. http://photoforum-nz.org/blog/?p=142 goes to a lively discussion on this topic on Photoforum’s blog. Looking forward to you feedback. Cheers.
[Unfortunately the comments on this post were not preserved in the archive.]
by james | 19 July, 2008
The Americans’ 50th Anniversary - Steidl edition
Review originally published in www.PhotographyMatters.com, June 2008.
On 15th May, 1958 Robert Frank’s book The Americans was published by Robert Delpire of Paris, after Frank was unable to find an American publisher due to the tone and content of the 83 photographs. The images, taken by the Swiss immigrant photographer on the road in the US during 1955-56, did not sit well with America’s post-WWII vision of itself as the leading nation in the world.
According to the New York Times, ‘Few books in the history of photography have had as powerful an impact as The Americans.’ So says the red banner wrapped around my beautiful new Steidl edition, which arrived by post a couple of weeks ago. And I have to agree with the NYT. This is, in my opinion, the seminal photography book. Joel Sternfeld called Frank’s book, ‘a body of work that changed the course of the river of Photography in a way that it could never take the old course again.’
In New Zealand, the influence of The Americans can be seen in Gary Baigent’s The Unseen City in the 1960s and later in the photographic works of Peter Black, Lucien Rizos, Gary Blackman, John B. Turner and other sophisticated photographers. It certainly influenced my own entry to photography in the mid-80s, but I hadn’t managed to acquire a copy until now.
When Lucien told me about the 50th Anniversary Steidl edition, (which he ordered on the 15th May 2008, the day it was published, because he’s a passionate Robert Frank nut) I was straight on the internet with my much-abused Visa card. As a keen book hunter, I regard buying off the internet like shooting fish in a barrel – the thrill of the hunt just isn’t there - but I’ve been hunting for a copy of this book for 25 years, so I succumbed.
Robert Frank personally oversaw the production of this exquisite edition, signing off each page for the press. He went back to his own vintage prints of the images, which were then scanned in tri-tone, and it was found that images had been cropped for past editions by various publishers, so Frank revised the cropping and in many cases has included the entire image. He had input into every design aspect of this special publication, and the result is indeed a beautiful piece of book design around that still important content. Frank’s original captions and Jack Kerouac’s introduction survive intact.
So while you’re faffing around on the computer, reading blogs when you should be working, why not go to Steidl’s site http://www.steidlville.com/books/695-The-Americans.html and buy the thing. It’s very good value for money, even with the postage to NZ costing more than the book. And perhaps have a look what Steidl are doing with the rest of Robert Frank’s photography books and films while you’re there.
Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Americans_%28photography%29
by james | 30 June, 2008
Introduction - criticism
Originally published as an introduction in the 2008 blog site www.PhotographyMatters.com, in March 2008.
In New Zealand, we are actively discouraged from having opinions. Voicing an opinion on anything is like farting in church. How many times have you heard someone say, ‘So and so is terribly opinionated. Does he have to inflict his ideas on everyone? He should keep them to himself.’ With respect to Sir Ed, this issue arose constantly following the great man’s recent death; that the paramount New Zealand qualities are humbleness and reticence. Keep your opinions to yourself and just get the job done.
Another national characteristic is our lack of self confidence—the major way in which we are different to Australians, and thereby not as good at sport and business—we are like adolescents in this respect. If you disagree with a Kiwi, he is highly likely to take umbrage, never talk to you again and hate you and badmouth you forever. Disagree with, say, a German, and he will delight in engaging you in debate and go away thinking better of you rather than worse. You may agree to disagree, or shift his opinion, or he may alter yours. Hell, you might even learn something.
No, if someone criticises something we’ve put a lot of effort and emotional energy into, like our artwork, we crawl away wounded and bitter, vowing revenge. We have to get over this. If we are going to progress, mature and develop as (photographic) artists, we must learn a more mature attitude towards criticism. And we need to toughen up a bit.
Part of the problem also arises from our low population; we operate in relatively small communities. In a large community, serious critics may be relatively detached from those whose work they evaluate. We cannot have that luxury.
All this is leading up to my decision to contribute to this blog. I have said for ages that what is missing from the photographic equation here is critical feedback. There’s a heap of photographers; there are plenty of places and opportunities to exhibit photographs, both actual and online; but there is almost no critical writing. No feedback. How can exhibiting photographic artists (Photographic artists? It’ll have to do for now or I’ll get lost in digression.) develop and progress in this country without the input of active critics. The current situation is like a two-legged stool, and about as useful.
As well as for the reasons above (national characteristics and small community size) there is a lack of publishing outlets for people wanting to write about photography. The New Zealand Journal of Photography (now titled ‘Photomedia’) has a scant record of publishing reviews but is improving somewhat in that regard. [Note: the NZCP Journal is now defunkt.] Art New Zealand has been active, but much passes under its high-altitude radar, and like the NZCP Journal, it is read only by a shrinking and somewhat elite minority. And Photo Forum now has some young blood (Abby Storey has started a blog), but frankly that organisation has had its day, losing its momentum through the 90s. [Note: Wrong - Photo Forum has risen from the almost-dead and is once again a relevant and worthwhile organisation.] The major newspapers and magazines don’t seem much interested in publishing critical writing, and television only reacts to the sensational; if you have a clever enough gimmick you might get a look in there. A recent example is coverage of an artist who used a car boot as her gallery, (but did they show the actual art? No.).
So I believe I have justified the need for this blog. Now me. When Deb [Sidelinger] approached me with the idea for it, I was at first hesitant. The only time I ever wrote a published review under my own name, it landed me in a bit of hot water (see NZCP Journal #61, 2006). So as a photography gallery owner, I really should not be entering this arena. There are simply too many possible conflicts of interest, etc. It’s just Not The Done Thing.
But you know what, I don’t give a monkey’s about that any more. Apparently no one else is prepared to do this, so I feel I have to step into the ring. (Where are the hundreds of graduates of the many photography degree programmes we have now?) The following is one of many coffee-fuelled rants (and if you’ve tried Photospace gallery coffee, you’ll understand) that will eventually get me into more hot water, boiling oil and molten lead than I can imagine at this stage. Potentially, this blog will wreck my gallery business and make me a social outcast (if enough people read it, of course). Good. Bring it on.
by james | 13 March, 2008
Photography Matters II