Writing on photography

The Limits of Editions

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.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


Leave a Reply to Liz Ruest Cancel reply

  • I’m a printer working in London and frequently find myself in discussions regarding edition printing. It is clearly an anachronism to put an arbitrary figure on an infinitely reproducible sheet of paper. Even Cartier a reason understood this – he never editioned a print.

    • Thanks for commenting Alex. Interesting to hear that from someone so close to the actual print making. Part of me wants to think there must be an argument for limited editions in certain circumstances, but so far I just can’t find one…

    • Sorry Lewis, while I enjoyed the article, I’m afraid I have to really disagree with the conclusion. I believe that editioning is very important – both to the artist and the acquirer of his work, for a whole host of reasons.

      First, I don’t believe that an artist receiving money for his artwork is ‘sordid’ at all. Quite the opposite, it is extremely important. The opposite of sordid. ‘Sordid’ is when the rich might acquire art for peanuts because there are no mechanisms allowing the artist to enjoy any reward for his or her creativity and labour. Creating a viable market for art not only keeps artists and collectors happy, it means that artists can go on doing what they do without having to get a job on the side as a banker.

      Apart from helping to create a viable market for artist’s work in their lifetime (otherwise the value only really comes after their death – when there aren’t going to be any more artist-created originals and any future reproductions will have the stigma of not being original. There is really no reason why artists participation in the value of their own artwork should be seen as sordid, or that only the rich should be able to make fortunes out of them after their deaths. Editioning is one small way of helping to create a market for living artists, which they might benefit from, by providing a guarantee from them that they will only produce a defined number of ‘originals’.

      Another aspect to this is that it gives the artist wider opportunities to market their work in different ways. If there are a certain number of high quality, signed and numbered prints that have the artist’s approval on them, then that opens them up to using the images in other ways, by producing other reproductions that are not approved originals. So they might want to print them on the side of a mug, or make a poster out of them, or reproduce them in a magazine etc.. The differentiation between the artwork in limited numbers and high quality, usually archival or near-archival with the artist’s approval, allows the artist some freedom to allow other reproductions that are of lower quality.

      From the collector’s point of view, it makes buying an artwork less of a gamble. If they invest in an artist early on in their career, they want some reassurance that, if the photo becomes iconic, that the market isn’t going to be flooded by the artist taking advantage of the fame of the photo. Investment by the collector would otherwise a complete game of roulette – will the photographer in the future flood the market with prints, or won’t they?

      This kind of reassurance just helps collectors to invest in artists at an early stage in their career. Without this kind of reassurance, sensible collectors would only invest in artists who were already dead.

      As far as arguments against the limited editioning of prints are concerned – I am not clear what they are.

    • Hi Simon, thanks for your thoughts. To keep things brief these are rather simplified responses, but anyway as I think I said on Twitter I don’t think it’s sordid for an artist to profit from their work, but I make a distinction between profit and profiteering, and editioning tends to come hand in hand with the type of prices that are (I think) completely unreasonable and artificial for a mass producible medium like photography. In response to your other point I think the difference between an art print and a photo on the side of a mug are clear enough not to require the former to be editioned. Again it’s just my opinion and I appreciate that not everyone might share it, but I don’t particularly want art to be about collection or investment, that way often lies boring work produced to meet a market.

  • I had come to the same conclusion, open editions for my digital art, but have happened across several exhibition & sale opportunities that don’t agree. They require limited edition prints for participation. I’m currently trying to reconcile those two stances, and appreciate the thoughts both for & against.

    • Thanks for commenting. I’ve encountered similar, usually exhibitions organised by commercial galleries presumably hoping to recoup costs through sales. As I say, I’m not vehemently against editions, but I think photographers need an argument for using them, not to just treat them as the default.

Writing on photography