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 [Also, please bear in mind that this is an archived page and may not accurately reflect the writer's current view.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
Photography Matters II