Detail showing Famine from Albrecht Dürer’s ‘The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse’ woodcut, 1497-1498
Editioned prints are the norm in the art photography world, and are increasingly available from documentary photographers and even photojournalists. Despite this widespread use I find it a little troubling how few photographers have a rationale or explanation of why they practice editioning (besides the generally unspoken reason, that of money). Equally most that I’ve spoken to have very little sense of the history of this practice. This post then is both an attempt to provide a little context and background, and also a little whinge at its ubiquity, a call for photographers to think twice, and to question the limitations of limited editions.
We tend to conceive of the mass production of art as a modern thing, something perhaps a couple of centuries old. The reality is not so, technologies for mass producing art have existed for thousands of years. Bronzes are perhaps the earliest art objects that could be created in significant quantity, woodcuts were another rather more recent method of reproduction, appearing in Europe around the twelfth century. Indeed in his oft quoted essay on the subject Walter Benjamin noted that it was possible to reproduce almost all works of art by hand, and that for a long time painters practiced this as a way to make more money, and to train apprentices.
The invention of printing technologies in the late medieval and early modern period offered a quicker means of reproducing two dimensional art than was possible by manual copying . Already mentioned were woodcuts, but from this came more sophisticated techniques like etching, engraving, dry point and finally lithography. These innovations drastically improved the quality of mass producible art works, from something which was a clear copy or evidently part of a larger production run, to something which was in some cases difficult to distinguish from the original artwork it was copied from.
As quality became an increasingly important element of the printing process it was recognised that there was a physical limitation on the number of good quality prints that could be made from a single plate. As a print was pressed it wore down and damaged the plate, reducing the fidelity of the image. Editions became important to preserve the integrity of the print quality, in other words to make sure printing ended before the plate become too worn, and numbering of prints was relevant because lower numbers in an edition were often likely to be of better quality, while higher ones were made when the plate was at its worst condition. The edition was enforced by the nature of product and production, not arbitrarily introduced by the producer.
Photography in some of its earliest formats (like a Daguerreotype or tintype) was as unreproducible as say an oil painting, it was a one off piece. Talbot’s negative process was an important exception. Technical and chemical innovations gradually made the photograph increasingly reproducible, to the point that this trait came to be regarded as one of the medium’s special abilities, alongside the way it seemingly sampled its image directly from the world itself. This reproducibility obviously came with its own problems, including arguably the loss of the aura that Benjamin suggested was possessed only by works of art that were one of a kind and impossible to reproduce.
This reproducibility has if anything become even more total than Benjamin could have imagined. One might be able to attach a limited lifespan (in a very broad sense) to a photographic negative, which however carefully kept is still prone to damage, loss. The same can’t be said of the digital equivalent, which undergoes no wear and tear, which can exist simultaneously on a thousand storage mediums and which will produce exactly the same print every time. It seems to me editioning at its most acceptable is just a rather futile attempt to counteract a technological trait which if anything ought to be embraced.
As I noted at the start the other, invariably unspoken, rationale is I suspect rather more sordid. It’s a question of money. I don’t really need to explain how this works, anyone with half an understanding of investment will know that people who invest want to put their money into a known variable, which is unlimited edition isn’t (it shows how far economic concerns have proliferated into the art world that even the most casual collectors are often seen as just that, investors). Again editioning only offers a rather illusory safeguard in this respect, the recent court case between William Eggleston and a major collector demonstrates that a number scrawled on the back of a print is a guarantee of nothing, and short of destroying the original source file or negative, all editions have the potential to be ‘reopened’ at a later date.
I appreciate that even considering the points I’ve made here, many photographers will still see editioning as key to the way they make and market their work. I should also say it’s an approach I still occasionally employ (although the last time it was on a project that was editioned because it was such a nightmare to make I wanted to make sure I didn’t have to produce too many). As ever I just wish there would be more consideration, more questioning of the status quo, and less of an assumption that ones work somehow stands in complete isolation from the preceding three thousand years of history.