The Ethics of Limited Editions

| April 8, 2012

Some time ago, I referred to photography as a field “fraught with cognitive dissonance.” One such example, in my mind, is the strange practice of limiting print editions. Try as I might, I cannot reconcile the notion of edition limits with what to me are some of the most compelling and advantageous reasons to pursue photography as art, or art via photography.

In this post I’d like not only to articulate my thoughts on this touchy topic, but also to solicit opinions from readers on the practice.


When asked about the reasons for limiting editions, the responses invariably have to do with marketing — the notion that scarcity increases value, that gallery curators insist on it, and that doing so appeals to collectors. All true, but I have to wonder why so many artists who hold themselves ethical in every other respect never question the morality of what is essentially a marketing ploy having little to do with quality, creativity, beauty, or so many other reasons many of us do what we do.

My views on the practice of marketing are no big secret. I engage in it reluctantly and only to the extent I have to as a professional artist who needs to generate income from my work. I could never understand why so many proudly self-apply terms such as “marketing consultant,” “social media advisor,” “SEO expert,” etc., in addition to just being artists, photographers, or other professionals. After all, marketing is really the practice of exploiting some of the least flattering traits of the human psyche.

There’s no argument that limiting editions works to inflate the value of a print. The topic many may be embarrassed to acknowledge is why it works. If two prints are identical in every respect other than edition limits, what accounts for the difference in value?

The Medium and the Message

Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message,” indicating a binding relationship between content and the media used to deliver it. Photographers are usually quite emphatic about the unique characteristics of their medium: speed, accuracy, realism, etc. If one indeed takes pride in their chosen medium, why ignore one of its most distinctive (and, in my opinion, advantageous) qualities: the ability to produce multiple prints of identical quality?

And, if the medium is the message, what do such mixed messages say about the medium and about the artist? When your message is “yes, I can make enough for everyone, but I choose not to so only a small elite can afford to possess them,” how can I then claim that my goal is to inspire, to share, to make accessible, to celebrate, and other noble causes often associated with photography of natural things?

Real vs. Manufactured Scarcity

On a recent discussion about this topic, I mentioned that photographers such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams did not limit their print editions, yet their prints sell well and are much sought after. In response, a friend quoted a gallery owner who said “well, there is only one Ansel Adams.” To me, that is perhaps the best argument against edition limits. Of course there is only one Ansel Adams, just like there is only one of each of us. The reason an Adams or Weston print sells well is not the arbitrary and artificial limits deliberately placed on their editions; rather, it is the fact that their availability is limited because they are no longer around to make more of it. There are few of them, not because the artist chose to impose a limit, but because they really are rare.

From an ethical perspective, should artificial scarcity be considered the same as real scarcity? This doesn’t hold in many other situations, and for very logical reasons. When a manufacturer chooses to limit supplies in order to boost profits, we complain about price gouging and other derogatory terms. Can we then turn around and apply the same practice in our own work just because “everyone does it”?

What’s in a Number?

A quick perusal of photographers’ web offerings reveals edition limits ranging up to the hundreds, and sometimes more. In my admittedly unscientific estimate, only a fraction of a percent of such “limited” editions ever even come close to selling their editions. When a photographer offers a “limited edition of 500,” it almost always means the same as saying “limited to the number I can sell.” Some buyers may be vain, but they are not stupid. They know good art and they know good investments.

If you are honest about wanting to limit your print editions, why not set a true limit?

Accessibility vs. Exclusivity

As many of you know, I do not believe in the greater social value of limiting editions. To me, such practices are incompatible with the social value of art. The history of art recounts many stories of artists rebelling against the co-opting of art by the wealthy and powerful. And for good reason. In an enlightened and equitable society, art should never be the exclusive privilege of the few.

Perhaps another way to look at it is that all prints made by me and signed by me are of a limited edition, by virtue of my own mortality. The only difference is that I can’t tell you the edition size in advance.

Art should be accessible and available to anyone who may benefit from it. Choosing the life of an artist is a noble path, not a guaranteed path to riches. Artists survive by what is good and honorable about humanity: generosity, sharing, gratitude. We rely on our patrons to pay us not because we are cutthroat businesspeople, but because our work serves to enrich and elevate their lives, bring solace in difficult times, open hearts and minds to those things in life that are beautiful, hopeful, and meaningful, beyond the cynicism and violence and unfairness that characterize so much else.

Let our work be accessible. Let us not use the same tactics in our business as those who perpetrate price bubbles and economic collapses. We are better than that; our work is better than that; our reasons for making art are more honorable than that. How can we ethically justify limiting it?



(part of The Good Badlands portfolio)

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Photography as Art, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (70)

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  1. Guy, I’m confused with the whole notion of limited edition prints from the point of how would one reliably keep track of the number printed/sold of an image when you may have printed various sizes of the same image over the years? Sounds like a bunch of record keeping best left to an accountant. My time is best spent out trying to make some images and just enjoy life and nature.

  2. Guy: As always, very thought provoking. While I do not make a living at photography, I have sold a number of images over the years. My single best selling image is one of those images that has impact on viewers again and again and solicits requests for use and purchase. I have never considered making it (or any other of my images) “limited.” So far, it has not affected the sale or demand for the image. I have never told a purchaser it is limited, so I don’t think that has truly affected its value.

    While this may seem like a simplistic view, the thought has always occurred to me that if I limit it, what happens when I have sold the limit and demand for it remains steady. Have I (proverbially) “cut of my own nose to spite my face”?

    Good topic.

  3. Daniel Burykin says:

    Great article, Guy. My brother recently bought peter lik photo for 3k, and his reason was it will go up in value, so that he can sell it for a lot more.

  4. intuitive cat says:

    There are so many aspects of creativity which your points (which I agree with) could be applied to.
    There’s the issue of Graphic Designers, of course, who use their professional creative abilities solely for the manipulation of the human psyche in trade for wealth.

    The music industry, especially the independent music scene, has always annoyed me with its cultish limited editions and vanity driven collectors mindset. Much of it is based upon the concept of ‘coolness factor’ and exclusivity.
    None of these things mentioned above support the highest ideals of art, creativity & the artist, but rather profane such things and render them as nothing more than products in a marketplace; products which are only meant to feed ego, selfishness, exclusivity and the imposition of false hierarchies.
    If these are the core values which we are driven by and define even our own creativity according to, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we are mistakenly worshipping the marketplace and the cult of personality as a god?

    thanks for another wonderfully written and thoughtful piece, Guy!

  5. Daniel Burykin says:

    Brooks Jensen had written on the same subject before, and he suggested only numbering but not limiting photographs.

  6. Shannon says:

    Guy I respectfully disagree.
    Your initial premise that “After all, marketing is really the practice of exploiting some of the least flattering traits of the human psyche” is sadly misguided and sets the tone for your own success or failure and worse I fear that young artists following you will embrace this mantra.

    First I think we need to agree there is nothing “Exploitive” about the marketing of art no matter how it occurs. Exploitation can only occur when someone has no other choice and we all know that the purchase of art is purely optional.

    I would argue that the pursuit of commercial success is paramount to any artists ability to truly fulfill their potential.

    As a photographer you can certainly appreciate that having the time and money to travel to the locations where you can capture great imagery is a prerequisite to your success. And having decent photographic equipment when you get there is certainly part and parcel of that success.

    A limited edition print does nothing more than assure the buyer that the great print they are about to purchase will not end up in the poster bin at Walmart and become a dart board in a dorm room. It adds real value despite your assertion otherwise.

    This concept that true art must be achieved without commercial success is responsible for thousands of talented artist eventually giving up the pursuit all together and must stop. It is the reason that art is a dwindling part of american life.

    I find your positioning of limited prints as a form of “Exploitive Marketing” hypocritical given that you are using a blog on the Internet which is clearly engaged in SEO practice, as clearly identified by the “Tags” section I see on this page. Those tags have no other purpose than to Exploit the search engines to get you ranked where people will see your blog and that is Marketing.

    I think you owe it to up and coming artists to help them be commercially successful so they will continue with their art and have the time and money to pursue a lifetime of contribution.

    Declaring that “”After all, marketing is really the practice of exploiting some of the least flattering traits of the human psyche”, does not help.

    That said, I love your work.

  7. Sandy says:

    I used to be of your mind, but recently, I’ve had several buyers tell me they would only buy if I produce limited editions. The reason consistently cited is that they want to know they have something unique. They want to ensure that not everyone has the same image. I think that’s an odd argument as taste in art differs so much. But sometimes it pays to listen. I’ve also shown in galleries who insist on limited editions. Again, for reasons of uniqueness.

  8. Sean Bagshaw says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this Guy. For years I have had an inner debate over this point myself. If I were starting now I might do it differently. However, almost a decade ago, when faced with the choice, the coin toss went to limiting my prints (I actually did a lot of reading and contemplating before making the decision). Once you go down that path you can’t go back. That is to say I can’t now turn around and un-limit my limited prints. I could potentially stop limiting my newer work, but that presents the puzzle of trying to explain why my older photographs are limited while my current, and arguably better, work is not. In the end I try not to take myself too seriously. I don’t see a day when what I do is so important or better than what others are doing that limiting them will constitute depriving the masses.

    I can also honestly say that many customers appreciate limited prints. When asked I honestly tell them that I arbitrarily limit my signed prints. I have never had a customer who didn’t like the idea that they wouldn’t see their print mass produced for Walmart someday. I can also point to at least one significant sale (over 60 large prints) in which it was important to the client that the prints were limited. From that experience I would have to agree with your sentiment: “I engage in it reluctantly and only to the extent I have to as a professional artist who needs to generate income from my work”.

  9. David Lloyd says:

    But isn’t this just a little more than numbers and limited numbers? For example I sell both open and limited edition prints, those being limited to 75. Aside from the limited number of the latter, these are signed and hand numbered as well as inspected for quality etc. This is the personal touch that many buyers are happy to pay more for.

    Open prints, while printed to the same spec are not signed nor subject to the same quality control. If there is the slightest flaw, crease or colour shift, then the limited edition is not passed on to a buyer, whereby the open ones go straight from printer to buyer. (Having said that, I still offer a replacement should there be post damage.)

    Also, my best images are reserved for limited editions, and the remainder are open.

    I ran a poll on my Facebook page recently (at ) querying what a buyer would prefer: hand signed or otherwise, the result was 99% hand signed (out of 50 odd votes).

    That’s what the buyer prefers and that’s what the buyer gets and everyone’s happy.

    For the record, I sell far more limited editions of my wildlife photography than open editions, even given the substantial price difference.

  10. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks, Shannon!

    Of course, disagreement is the cornerstone of a dialectic discussion, and the reason I explicitly asked for opinions.

    If I may, I’d like to challenge some of the points in your argument, as well:

    I maintain that most marketing is exploitative to one degree or another. Even when a choice is made implicitly through an inherent desire to conform, socialize, live up to higher ideals, etc. it is almost never completely based on rational deliberate argument. There is numerous scientific evidence showing how the brain’s “programming” can be used to coerce people into making irrational decisions, and even have the decider believe that they are making the correct choice despite objective evidence.

    I am not condemning marketing as a means of raising awareness of one’s work and value. I do think, though, that it would be extremely naive to not notice the trend of ever increasing aggression, one-upmanship, and exploitative tactics used by marketers. It’s the nature of unregulated competition and lack of direct accountability for statements made. While it may come as no surprise that a certain brew is not literally the “king of” anything, just ask any number of people who were led to believe that a mortgage they can’t afford is not only their right but part of the American Dream.

    You also don’t distinguish between “commercial success” and earning a living. The prerequisite for what we do is not success, as you state, but rather making a sufficient minimal income — big difference. That said, I did not claim that success is a bad thing; only that there are many paths to it, not all equally ethical.

    Perhaps the bigger question to you is: if a print serves to move you and elevate your experience, why would it matter if it is also in a Walmart bin where it may similarly elevate the experience of someone who may otherwise not be able to afford it?

    It may also be worth pointing out that limits on print editions do NOT impose limits on non-print uses, so buying a limited edition print is actually NO guarantee at all that it will not end up on a cheap poster or a mouse pad. I actually have a mouse pad with the Mona Lisa on it. If the original was offered to you, would you turn it down just because it also graces who knows how many lesser mass produced products?

    Your blog SEO argument is curious to me, as well. All blogs have the same optimization, provided by the software developers for FREE. It’s a level playing field. To say that my use of it is hypocritical is like saying that Modern Art is hypocritical since Modern artists still use color, line, and compositional elements similar to those used by the Classic painters they rebelled against. Are you prepared to make the same statement about the hypocrisy of, say Impressionism or Cubism?

    Lastly, I don’t believe I owe anything to up and coming artists other than honesty. In the words of R. Buckminster Fuller:

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    All I’m doing is proposing that the existing model is obsolete.


  11. Guy Tal says:

    David, you still didn’t answer the “why” question. Does it take considerably more effort for you to sign some prints and not others? If your buyers are overwhelmingly in favor of hand-signed prints, why not sign all of them?


  12. Guy Tal says:

    Sean, in the past I sold about 20 images in limited editions, due to the same argument. I still maintain count of the number of prints of those specific images. Since coming to question the practice, I also became uncomfortable with it and, rather than perpetuating something I was not comfortable with, I chose to change my strategy. I have no problem explaining why (as I have in this post). Yes, it may take some effort, but you can go back.


  13. Guy Tal says:

    Sandy, thank you for articulating what I meant by “unflattering traits”. Why would artificial(!) uniqueness have any bearing on the value of your work, rather than its aesthetic qualities, production value, emotional appeal, etc.?


  14. Guy Tal says:

    Daniel, I can’t speak for Mr. Lik, but if someone bought my work for the sole reason that it may some day gain in value, I would be offended.


  15. David Lloyd says:

    Guy, In my case, yes it does – I have very little interaction with open print orders, just an email to my printer and it’s all done, he prints and sends it off for me. With limited edition ones, he sends me the print, I collect, inspect, sign and number, then package it all up again, and send it to the buyer. In other words, five minutes or so versus an hour+ of time minimum for each.

  16. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks David. That’s fair, as long as the difference in price is representative of the difference in cost/effort.


  17. I agree Guy. Like you, I used to offer limited edition prints… which created all kinds of complications, many of them arising from the simple fact that I like to rework my images as time passes and my inner vision changes.

    I also appreciate Sean’s points. My strategy for un-limiting future editions of images previously sold as L.E. is to make sure I have made sufficient changes so I am not selling *the same* exact images as open editions.

    …Hopefully everyone will be happy with that.

  18. Dan Baumbach says:

    Great article, Guy. I tend to agree with you. I’d much rather have my photographs purchased by ordinary people who appreciate them than by collectors who are interested in an investment.

    That said, many of us are not as fortunate as you and we can’t even cover our expenses with print sales. If I felt that limiting the editions of my prints would bring in more income, I would probably do it. I would still try to find ways to make it so everyone of every income could afford a photograph of mine.

  19. Dena Sanders says:

    Hi Guy,
    I think the history of art is also a factor in this discussion. Some of the demand for limited edition prints is due to the fact that art was historically paintings, not photographs. When one bought a nice painting, they were assured they had the only one that was exactly like that.

    For better or for worse, people equate value with uniqueness. Many people don’t know why they should spend large amounts of money on something that is “mass produced”, regardless of it’s beauty. In fact, if it is mass produced, it becomes less beautiful. “It can’t be as valuable as a painting because it’s not unique.” One of the challenges of photography is educating (or dare I say marketing to) customers to make them understand why they should spend large sums of money on something that isn’t scarce.

    That’s a little disheartening as it completely negates the concept of art for the sake and beauty of art. Finding the right niche of customer who understands and appreciates your philosophy or educating the masses to look beyond their consumer good buying behaviors, may be necessary.

    As always, I enjoy your point of view.

  20. Jesse Speer says:

    I am getting ready to move to limited edition prints. I am excited by this. Not for what it means for me, but for the reward it brings to the select few who buy prints. Let me emphasize the select FEW. People just aren’t buying prints anymore. The tanking economy, increasing accessibility of online images, I now suck, whatever the reason may be. At least with “everyday” people – who have been my primary customer over the years. I would argue that PRINTS, not the editioning, are now “the exclusive privilege of the few”. Unless you sell your prints for $20 … which I don’t and never will.

    I’m a huge believer in accessibility though. I honestly don’t care about the argument of editioning anymore. I believe it’s an argument based on an old model. Digital files are the “photographic accessibility” of the future. Which is why I’m going to offer quality JPEGs under a type of creative commons model, as a means of increasing accessibility – even as I move to LE. I’ll give people something a little bigger than my standard website JPEG – for wallpaper, screensaver or other personal use. They could even make their own 5×7 print if they really wanted to. This is the type of accessibility that appeals to masses, I think. I’m convinced it’s the future.

    By doing all of this, I believe I’ve found a great balance of making photography accessible for others and keeping it enjoyable for myself.

    I enjoy my art. I enjoy being an amateur, by choice. I have a life that occupies most of my time. I want to focus mostly on the making of photographs, not necessarily prints – despite how much I love prints. I enjoy making a FEW prints here and there. I don’t want to be making a ton of prints. I don’t want to hire people to help me make prints, or send them out to be made by others – if I were to increase in popularity. My photography is a very personal, hands-on craft for me. The limited edition model happens to make sense for my sentiments. It’s my art, and I make the rules. I don’t believe I’m bound by the inherent qualities of the photographic medium – or even by public sentiment.

    There’s a lot said on this page that assumes that prints are the only means to accessibility. I couldn’t disagree more. We aren’t limited to the same model as Adams or Weston. Prints are no longer the only means of making photographs accessible. Someday soon, we may be discussing whether or not to limited our liquid plasma “prints”, or something like that.

  21. Jim Bullard says:

    I pondered this topic back in the ’90s and wrote about it on a photography site I had at the time. What I wrote then is still floating in the ‘net at It was before I was still doing most of my printing in the darkroom but the essence remains the same. If anything there is even less reason for limited editions with digital printing. You don’t have to individually dodge & burn each print.

    I don’t do limited editions. I agree that it is a gimmick designed to artificially raise the price. I’ve had one person walk away because I told them I don’t do limited editions. I’m sure there are some galleries that won’t take my work for the same reason.

    Doing limited editions may give the impression of greater value and thus ‘survivability’ of the print (Micheal Johnson ran an interesting pair of posts about survivability on The Online Photographer in Feb 2011) but it doesn’t guarantee it as anyone who has watched Antiques Roadshow knows. An amazing number of things get pulled out of the trash, basements, attics, etc. that could just as easily been resigned to the rubbish. I wonder how many did go to the trash because someone didn’t recognize it as something of value, even original paintings and limited edition prints. One could argue that having many more prints out there, signed and numbered but not limited, would do as much to insure survivability as the artificial value of a limited edition.

    Nor does limiting an edition insure that the value will increase. The taste of collectors is a fickle thing. Again, people on Antiques Roadshow are constantly being told “The market for that has declined in recent years…”. Even the price of original Ansel Adams prints goes up and down.

  22. David Taylor says:

    Another fantastic article, Guy. I used to feel exactly the same way about limited edition prints. Since then, I have taken an admittedly much less ‘high morality’ stance.
    Many photographers that chose to deal with this issue, by choosing to offer either Limited or Open Editions, are quick to pontificate about the moral value of their choice –
    “It’s unethical to offer finite quantities of something that has no reason to be finite.” “I want the buyers of my prints to know that they have something unique.”
    “I want everyone to be able to afford and benefit from my work.”
    I hate to say it, for professional artists – it’s all marketing b.s.
    Marketing IS exploitative. I have no problem admitting that, or engaging in it. As a professional artist, I need to be able to put food on the table, pay for rent (and put money aside to own a home in the future), to buy more camera gear, to pay for insurance, to buy fuel to drive my car (that costed money too, as I remember all too well), to afford trips to unique locations throughout Alaska… etc. ad nauseum.

    Having and operating a blog is marketing too. As is posting a controversial blog post. Not that I find any fault with that at all (I do it all the time:D). But I would argue that, just as limiting editions of prints to increase their price is marketing, so is blogging to either inform/educate/discuss/etc. By blogging more, we increase the likelihood of visitors to our sites. This leads to an increased probability of purchasing a print, buying an ebook, or signing up for an photo tour or instructional workshop (which I offer in Alaska, should anyone be interested:D). Every action that we take within a social community is marketing, whether or not we want to admit it. But there is nothing wrong with that. What I would say is wrong (for me anyway) would be to continue to work a job that leaves me unfulfilled, versus offering limited edition prints and high end specialty Alaskan photo tours – which leads to self employment and ultimately, the ability to get outside and pursue more photography. That’s one thing that everyone that has commented on this blog post can relate to and understand. Photography for us, is passion. Regardless of how you make money from it, it is still money made – and a choice between evils. I just chose the evil that allows me to pursue my passion more freely.
    Excellent discussion and everyone has very valid points. But lets remember that there is no right way of doing things in this venue, there is only my way and someone else’s. My way is not necessarily right. It’s just right, for me.

  23. Daniel Ruf says:

    I’m new to this discussion since a couple of years ago a gallery director insisted that limited edition prints sell better. Who was I to argue the fact since I was a retired farmer trying to gain entrance into a gallery that I respected for the quality of art they offered?

    I do find the whole process to be annoying and pointless. Just as you pointed out that our work is limited by the very fact that our existence is limited, I also feel that if we’re constantly trying improve our creativity, that alone will limit sales on previous work since newer work will be more desirable.

    My head hurts from thinking about this!

  24. QT Luong says:

    “There’s no argument that limiting editions works to inflate the value of a print.”

    For someone who is making a living out of selling prints (not teaching, writing, or other pursuits related to photography), I think that’s enough reason to issue limited editions.

    “Once you go down that path you can’t go back. That is to say I can’t now turn around and un-limit my limited prints.”

    That’s just what Alain Briot – who wrote the book about marketing fine art photography – did.

  25. Jeff Colburn says:

    The idea of limited editions of photographs is interesting, but I feel it’s a moot point. Once a photographer puts an image on a web site, blog, forum, Flicker or anywhere else, they give up control of that image and can no longer guarantee a limited number of prints.

    Anyone can go to these sites and copy an image. They can then make prints and sell them as their own at local gift shops, coops and weekend art shows.

    With a limited edition, a photographer is guaranteeing that only a certain number of prints of a specific image will be made, but dozens to hundreds of unauthorized prints may be made and sold.

    When an incident like this comes to light, and it will, the value of that photographer’s limited editions will crater. And the idea of limited editions for all photographs will be put into question.

    You may say that these unauthorized prints will be small (8×10 or 11×14) and of lesser quality. That my be true, or not, depending on the skill of the thief. But what about the lab tech that burns a copy to a flash drive and makes his own big and beautiful prints for sale?

    I live in Arizona, and if someone were making unauthorized prints and selling them in Colorado, New York, Japan or anywhere else, I’d never know.

    Just something to think about.

    Have Fun,

  26. Guy Tal says:

    Jesse, that’s the first argument I’ve seen that goes beyond “the end justifies the means”. Good food for thought!


  27. Guy Tal says:

    David T., I didn’t mean to take a high and mighty stance on this. I’m just wondering whether others consider the reasons for, and implications of doing it rather than just going with the flow; and whether there are reasons other than financial that I did not think about. Putting food on the table is as good a justification as any.


  28. Aleks Miesak says:


    I am not sure if the issue of William Eggleston being sued had anything to do with your post but this just happened this past week. You can read more here: So if one is to consider limiting their images this is a valuable lesson to learn. Granted not many of us will reach level of Eggleston in fame and dollar signs but one should consider the other side of the coin here. This collector committed large sums of money for something he thought was unique and had incredible value. Now does the new size of digitized images fit the “edition” criteria and therefore “cheapens” his collection is up to the judge in NY to decide.

    Thanks for another insightful post and the following discussion. Lots to consider :)

  29. James Dricker says:

    It’s an interesting coincidence that this discussion about limited edition photographs would occur on the very weekend following Thomas Kindade’s death on Friday. Kinkade promoted countless reproductions of his original paintings through franchised galleries, many of which were in shopping malls. He turned the whole notion of limited editions in fine art on its head, and he wasn’t a photographer. Many of his galleries sold out their inventories this weekend when news of Kinkade’s death spread.

  30. Aleks: wow! what a great match of this Eggleston / Sobel case to the discussion here! I expect the judge’s decision will probably center around the question of whether different size prints, or the use of different formats & media (e.g. digital) make the images different enough for an open edition.

    This is why I decided to “un-limit” formerly L.E. prints by changing some of the *content* as well – not just size and format or media. I am thinking of changes equivalent to those made by Ansel Adams to “Moonrise Hernandez” where clouds were moved or removed in later prints.

    Hopefully any future judge will consider my later (Un-limited) prints (…both of them :D)sufficiently different from the LE versions.

    Some of that will no doubt depend on how the judge rules in this Eggleston/sobel case. Thanks for sharing — I hadn’t heard about it.

  31. Guy (et. al),

    If you’ll let me say a few things… Like most everyone on this discussion, I’m a (landscape) photographer. Also, I assume, like most everyone on this discussion, I shoot digitally and print digitally. That may not be true for everyone, but film and paper sales being what they are, it’s a good assumption. Limited editions are — in practical terms — an antiquated or anachronistic idea.

    The original intent of a limited edition began with printmaking, not photography. As the physical printing plates degraded through time and use, it was somewhat necessary to establish a limit on the size of the printed edition, to make sure that all of the images sold were of reasonably equal quality. A small limited edition implied either that the artist was quite exacting in making sure there was no degradation of the plate, or was working in a more delicate medium, like woodcuts versus intaglio (metal plates). Printmakers struggled to gain recognition as “true artists”, because their work was not unique, like that of painters. A similar struggle was later seen in the recognition of photographers…

    Photographers in the pre-digital era sometimes struggled to make sure that their work was of reasonably equal quality… to the point where, if I understand it correctly, the idea was that you would print or create a single run of prints from one image all at the same time. You then had to guess how many prints you expected to sell over the life of the image, and commit to tying up an investment both in terms of paper and implied time. The image was then done for that size. As I’ve read up on the practice, though, it seems that it was considered acceptable to print the image at a different size or in a different medium (dye-transfer versus ilfochrome, etc.)

    A master printer such as Weston, Adams, or Alan Ross, however, could potentially create a reasonably equal quality print from notes and an example print. Adams, of course, is a good counter-example here as well, since his interpretations famously varied over the course of his career.

    Today, though, I think that the idea behind limited editions doesn’t really hold true anymore. Assuming that you’re working with good profiles on your printer, or the agency that’s printing for you is working with good profiles, you should be able to make two prints today, a print next month, and a print three years later — and have all of them be a reasonably equal quality. I assume that’s what most people are doing. If so, it’s not even really fair to call those prints part of a single edition — particularly not if you’re tweaking them a little bit between each printing! I strongly suspect that most of us aren’t making forty 16×20″ prints at the same time, from the same box of paper stock, and then stockpiling them in the basement and hoping that they eventually sell.

    So, in my opinion, limited editions [1] aren’t necessary and [2] aren’t entirely truthful for most photographers today. That said, I have been fortunate enough to be in a gallery in the past and today, and gallery owners want limited editions. As Jesse Speer and others imply, print purchases in 2011 are a luxury that most people can’t afford. It appears that the limitation and the illusion of exclusivity, artificial as it may be, is an important part of the sale for many customers.

    For myself, I’ve tried to twist the system a bit. I print and sell limited editions in larger sizes, open editions in smaller sizes. And the “limited” editions are quite large: 175. Why 175? There’s a quirk of copyright law, as I understand it, that limits my ability to sue for damages if the edition size is 200 or more. I’ve always been open with my customers that I print as I go, and that the images are therefore not a true “edition”; no one has seemed to mind so far. This gives me a “limited edition” without too much of a risk of selling out of that limited edition. In ten years of sales, even my most popular images have only made it up to the mid-forties sold, so I should be good for another couple decades!

    Thanks for letting me ramble/rant.

  32. Jim Bullard says:

    Jeff, I think the discussion here is about fine prints for framing, signed and perhaps numbered (I number mine but don’t limit them) not schlock reproductions. I put photos on my blog at 800ppi on the long side. I defy anyone to get a quality 8×10 out of that much less an 11×14 and even the most savvy computer whiz can’t put my signature on the front and back. Part of the value of an original fine print is its authenticity. There will always be thieves but limiting editions isn’t about controlling unauthorized reproduction. It is about selling more prints than you would if it wasn’t limited and getting a higher price for each print because you are creating the (false) illusion of greater rarity.

  33. Jim Heywood says:

    I’m with you, Guy. I sell very few prints, though I have agonized for years on which way to go – to limit, or not to limit. I’m very comfortable with my decision not to limit. Thanks (to everyone) for the discussion.

  34. Jeff Colburn says:


    I agree with your definition of a quality print and limited editions. But my experience has been that most of the buying public doesn’t know the difference between a quality print and a bad one, or doesn’t care.

    They go into the gallery and see my 13×19 6-color dye prints and say they are beautiful. Then they go to the next photographer in the gallery, who makes his prints on a regular 4-color ink printer while they wait, and think that those prints are beautiful too.

    And while it’s true that those who steal other photographers work will probably make an inferior print (depending how good they are with PS, Nik Sharpener and Perfect Resize 7), that wasn’t my point.

    My point was how will a customer feel when they buy your beautiful and expensive limited edition print, then in the next leg of their travels see the same print for $20? It will be smaller, not have your signature and be an inferior print, but most of the buying public will probably feel it’s good enough and be upset at the high price they paid for the quality print.

    There will always be the educated photography buyer that knows a quality print and the value of that print, but they are few and far between in my experience.

    Have Fun,

  35. Clive Frost says:

    Thank you Guy for kicking off a very interesting and informative discussion!

    However, the distinction you make between ‘commercial success’ and ‘earning a living’ reminds me of a parallel debate which one often reads on photography forums – commercial versus art, professional versus amateur, money versus passion etc. etc. These sorts of discussions are all dancing on the head of a pin and ultimately are arguing about rather redundant and pointless differentiations. In a response to David T., you write that you feel that ‘putting food on the table’ is as good a justification as any – but do you also make a distinction between eating well and just eating to survive, between fresh produce and fast food?

    What is marketing? Surely every time you show someone else one of your images, in whatever form, on your website, in your blog, published in an online or physical publication, you are marketing your work.

    Jesse Speer makes the quite correct point that prints are not the only means of accessibility and that contemporary photographers are no longer limited to the same model as Weston and Adams, but this doesn’t mean that we have to adopt the wholesale attitude of capitulation and appeasement which Jeff Colburn seems to be suggesting.

    Arizona isn’t quite that isolated and cut off from the rest of humanity is it?

    If a photographer enforces the copyright in their work to the best of their ability and knowledge, why do they automatically give up control of their images because they have put them on a website, blog or forum? Why can they no longer guarantee a limited number of ‘authorised’ prints? Why should some ‘unauthorised’ use mean that a photographer’s ‘authorised’ limited editions will crash? Surely we can safely assume that sensible buyers and serious collectors will be able to make the distinction between a quality limited edition signed and numbered, and therefore authorised, by the photographer and a dodgy 10″ x 8″ copied off the internet?

    Other people ripping off our work, either for their own financial gain or just for harmless personal use, have always existed and will always exist – the internet hasn’t created the bad eggs, it has just made their operation a little easier. Blame the message not the messenger!

    Alexs Miesak has highlighted the real danger to the limited editions market – a famous and respected photographer who is, seemingly, distorting and undermining the work and livelihoods of fellow photographers and collectors/buyers of photography by, it appears, wholly unethical actions simply intended, it also appears, to generate more revenue for himself and his sons. I consider that Jonathan Sobel is completely correct in what he says in his interview with PDN.

    What is a limited edition? To talk of numbers like 75 and 500 is not, by any sensible definition, a ‘limited edition’! Most serious photographers who sell their work as prints have editions of no more than 8 or 10 prints per image and many restrict their editions to as low as 3 or 4 prints. Many of these photographers might make an image available in two edition sizes, but that is usually all. To do more, or to adopt the principles that Eggleston is promoting, is to cut off the hand that feeds you!

    The reality on this issue is, in my mind, two fold:
    1. Limited editions rarely sell out for most photographers regardless of the size of the edition, but the existence of a limit, whether you like it or not, generally makes most buyers and/or collectors more comfortable about parting with their hard earned (or inherited!) money.
    2. Being high minded and ‘democratic’ about your photography/art is fine, very worthy and admirable in our money driven world, but if we are all honest with ourselves, 99% of the rest of this world don’t give a monkeys about photography, art, culture or indeed our particular individual humble contributions to it!

    Selling my photography either as prints or books has taught me one thing – you can’t sell anything at any price to someone who is not interested in the first place! A person who, from whatever background or with whatever financial resources at their disposal, would never consider spending say 50 good old British Pounds (yes, they still buy something!) on a limited edition or an open edition print or a photography book, might quite happily spend the same amount of money, or double that sum, on a pair of shoes or an article of whatever for their home or even on a good meal or an evening down at the pub with their friends. Some people still even spend £5.00 on a packet of cigarettes and then blow their £50.00 that way.

    The ‘shall I limit, shan’t I limit’ debate is not about price or accessibility. It is about value and worth. The value that a photographer chooses to put on their work and the worth that a potential purchaser places on owning that work.

    Although Mark Hespenheide is wrong to assume that everyone reading or contributing to this discussion is a landscape photographer and shooting digitally (I consider myself primarily a portrait and architectural photographer and coined the acronym recently, RPSF – work that one out to win a limited edition print!), he has, I think, made the most important contribution to this debate.

    “Limited editions are — in practical terms — an antiquated or anachronistic idea”…. and “aren’t entirely truthful for most photographers today”.

    Perhaps the most useful thing we can do is to come up with a better, more contemporary and more appropriate ‘label’ for this idea. Any suggestions?

    Best wishes,


  36. Jeff Colburn says:

    “Arizona isn’t quite that isolated and cut off from the rest of humanity is it?”
    Yes, it is. But that’s a topic for another discussion. But no matter where you live, if someone is selling prints in another state, how would you ever know?

    “If a photographer enforces the copyright in their work to the best of their ability and knowledge, why do they automatically give up control of their images because they have put them on a website, blog or forum?”
    Because anyone can make prints from images from the Internet. Before the Internet a photographers images may have appeared in a mailer or magazine, but due to the way these media print images (tiny dots), you can’t easily copy or enlarge.

    “Why can they no longer guarantee a limited number of ‘authorised’ prints?”
    They can guarantee authorized prints, but not unauthorized prints. And exclusivity/scarcity is the driving force behind limited editions.

    “Surely we can safely assume that sensible buyers and serious collectors will be able to make the distinction between a quality limited edition signed and numbered, and therefore authorised, by the photographer and a dodgy 10″ x 8″ copied off the internet?”
    Yes, sensible buyers can tell the difference, if they see the good image and bad one side-by-side. But do they really care? Spend $500 for a great print, or $20 for an okay print. “It’s just going into my office, or the bathroom, it doesn’t need to be perfect,” I’ve had buyers say. And how many serious collectors compose the buying public? Maybe 5% to 10%? Most buyers are people that want a pretty picture for their home.

    “Other people ripping off our work, either for their own financial gain or just for harmless personal use, have always existed and will always exist – the internet hasn’t created the bad eggs, it has just made their operation a little easier. Blame the message not the messenger!”
    Thieves (and yes, sharing is stealing) have always been around, it’s just that the Internet has taken all the work out of stealing. Right Click, Save As and you have a copy of the photographer’s image. Watermarks are easy to remove, and unless you know what a photographs signature looks like, anyone can sign a print.

    Have Fun,

  37. Ben Chase says:

    I’ll reply with similar comments that I did on your Google+ post:

    I’ve wondered about this myself and contemplated the exact same questions. My solution was to only offer open editions at this time. Given the time, cost, and effort required to produce each piece, I don’t feel that creating artificial scarcity is a requirement to bring value to the table.

  38. Wade Thorson says:

    Thanks for your thought provoking post (as always). I’ve been lurking here for a year now, and have been looking to you to set the standard for nature photographers and artists alike. I have yet to discover how to make money at photography, and dream one day at doing just that. I’ll have to accept breaking even on frames and prints for now. In my experience selling from a gallery setting at local artwalks I’ve noticed that there are two distinct clients. The affluent connoisseur, and the patron. The affluent client will recognize the quality of the work and the beauty of the photo and comment about how much they like it. The patron will feel much the same way, but actually purchase the art, without the pomp and circumstance. What is the difference? The patron will no doubt display the art much in the same way, but place the value of the art in the art itself. The affluent client will be more motivated to purchase the art if there is some hope of it being an investment, whether they will actually see a return or not. They are conditioned to appreciate art, and justify its purchase rather than go with a gut impulse. How do you cater to both crowds here? At first I didn’t even sign my prints (I have my copyright printed on the back), but my clientele demanded it. Now this post is making me rethink numbering them. I am considering numbering my prints as I print them. I figure that if they are worth anything posthumously my estate can go about figuring how many were printed, and infer its value and position in the edition that was printed during my limited life. Thanks for continuing to make me think.

  39. Clive Frost says:


    As I said in my first post, this seems like an attitude of capitulation and appeasement!

    “But no matter where you live, if someone is selling prints in another state, how would you ever know?”
    Because you hear things, honest people tell you what they have seen – you won’t catch them all, but when you do catch them you have to be prepared to pursue them and take them to court if necessary. I have always done this, pre-digital and digital – if you are not prepared to protect your own property, you really can’t expect others to take you seriously on this matter!

    “Because anyone can make prints from images from the Internet. Before the Internet a photographers images may have appeared in a mailer or magazine, but due to the way these media print images (tiny dots), you can’t easily copy or enlarge.”
    Yes, but this is nothing new – I am sure there were some dishonest people doing copies of stone tablets and wood engravings. The only difference is that now we have copyright laws on our side that say to these people, ‘this is wrong, this is illegal and if we catch you, we will punish you’.

    “They can guarantee authorized prints, but not unauthorized prints. And exclusivity/scarcity is the driving force behind limited editions.”
    I don’t believe that a few unauthorised prints will seriously affect this exclusivity/scarcity and if there were a great number of these unauthorised prints floating around in Colorado, New York or Japan, wouldn’t you soon hear about it or be told about it?

    “Yes, sensible buyers can tell the difference, if they see the good image and bad one side-by-side. But do they really care? Spend $500 for a great print, or $20 for an okay print. “It’s just going into my office, or the bathroom, it doesn’t need to be perfect,” I’ve had buyers say. And how many serious collectors compose the buying public? Maybe 5% to 10%? Most buyers are people that want a pretty picture for their home.”
    With respect, these sort of people are NOT serious buyers or collectors. Just deal with the 5% to 10% who won’t be particularly bothered by ‘unauthorised’ prints because they know that ultimately these unauthorised prints are totally worthless and won’t affect the real market that the serious buyer and collector operates in. Someone who buys an unauthorised print thinking or supposing it is authorised is by their own example not a serious buyer or collector – if nothing else, the price will probably give it away!

    “Thieves (and yes, sharing is stealing) have always been around, it’s just that the Internet has taken all the work out of stealing. Right Click, Save As and you have a copy of the photographer’s image. Watermarks are easy to remove, and unless you know what a photographs signature looks like, anyone can sign a print.”
    Any police officer will tell you that the best criminals are always one step ahead of the crime investigators and are always finding new ways of perpetrating their crimes. But it is the politics of despair and defeat to just accept criminality without any real opposition, which is how I read and understand your views in this discussion.


  40. Clive Frost says:

    In a similar vein, I have a story from my own experience.

    I recently moved house and in a moment of laziness and stupidity, rather than destroying a couple of boxes of old transparencies (remember them!) that I had gone through and edited and only kept what I wanted, I took the boxes and an old portfolio case down to the local rubbish dump and chucked them into the bottom of the skip, being careful, or so I thought at the time, to scatter the sheets of transparency film liberally around the bottom of the skip.

    Imagine my surprise then when I received an email six months later from a complete stranger who told me that he had bought some of my transparencies from a flee market and had found my name on the sheets and googled my name to get a contact address. He was actually contacting me to ask my permission to use my pictures on his Flicker site if he credited me as the photographer – this in itself was amazing enough! How many people do you find like this?

    Well my first reaction was to look upwards and thank the good Lord for creating not just one honest person in the world, but one honest person who had also heard of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. On further questioning, I found out where this flee market was – as it transpired, it was just down the road from where I now live (which isn’t the same part of the country where I had moved from), but it might have been anywhere.

    So the next Sunday, I went down to the flee market and almost immediately ran into the stranger who had contacted me. He pointed out the stall that was selling my photographs and I approached the owner of the stall who was extremely polite and understanding of my situation and immediately returned my property to me without any argument or disagreement. I was not only impressed (and not a little relieved – I am NOT 6 foot 4!)) by his attitude towards me, but I was particularly pleased that he had bothered to put the transparency sheets back in the portfolio to protect them! Second miracle!

    He also explained to me that he had bought the transparencies from another person in a completely different place from either the original rubbish dump or the flee market. He had actually acquired the transparencies perfectly honestly (after all, I had thrown them away), but he also understood and appreciated the principle of ownership of intellectual property. Third miracle!

    What this experience taught me is no different in the digital age and with the internet. Look after your property carefully and be prepared to pursue the people who steal or abuse your property.



  41. Eric Fredine says:

    As soon as you decided to set a price and sell prints you engaged in marketing.

    Why not sell the digital file for 10 cents and let everyone make their own print? Or make the digital file available for free and have people send you donations based on what it’s worth to them. I think that’s closer to what the medium has actually become. The marginal cost of manufacturing and distributing a digital product is nearly zero.

    I’ve been (semi-seriously) thinking I’d just make prints available for sale whenever I could actually be bothered to make one. Which isn’t very often. I also think fairly seriously about just making full size digital files available and letting people make their own prints – or really do whatever they want with the file.

    In practice, limiting editions is probably meaningless most of the time and benefits neither the buyer or seller.

  42. Guy, I need to agree with commenters who object to your characterization of marketing. You make mental leaps in your claims that go unsupported. Can marketing be exploitative? Of course. Is “most marketing” exploitative? You say yes without supporting the claim.

    That said, I agree that limiting print editions in a way that’s intellectually dishonest is exploitative.

    Thanks for the post.

  43. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks, everyone!

    I apologize for not having the time to respond to each of you personally but I would like to try to get the discussion back to its intended point, which is not my anecdotal opinions (prejudices?) of marketing.

    There is no arguing that marketing works, that limiting edition works, or that marketing is inevitable and necessary when considered within the confines of our competitive/capitalist system of commerce. Good or bad, I accept it. Let’s move on.

    My intent was not to question whether these practices (however you choose to characterize them) work, but WHY they work, and whether the model in which they work is ethical and yields the greatest (social) benefit from and to art.

    Not all societies and cultures consider art a liquid commodity to be marketed and bargained for all its worth. Try to consider other perspectives and whether they might make more sense.

    I do find it interesting that the only arguments raised so far regarding the motivation behind limiting editions have to do with revenue. Is this truly the only argument anyone can come up with in favor of imposing restriction on who gets to benefit from a high quality piece of art? Are there really no other reasons in favor of the practice? If not, what does that say about our collective perception of the role of art in our society?


  44. QT Luong says:

    Guy, it is purely a business decision. This has nothing to do with ethics, nor the role of art in society. If you don’t seek to make a living from your art, or your primary goal is to share your art, you can upload your full resolution files for anybody to print, like some heavily “followed” photographers advocate.

  45. Floris says:

    I have to agree with Eric. Furthermore, by setting a price point for a print you are arbitrarily and artificially setting an edition limit, because the fact is, fewer people will buy a print that you sell for $1M vs. $1.00. The “Limited Edition” stamp is just another artificial label. In fact, as you’ve noted, photographers will set the number of editions at the point where they think they will only just barely sell out. Essentially they are just guessing how big their edition will be based on the price they wish to sell at. If they guessed perfectly, the price limited model would be identical to the limited edition model. The only difference I see is that it gives investors an excuse to buy prints in hopes of the artist having guessed wrong about the edition size, and thus the price will go up.

    I guess my point is, the real discussion we should have is print pricing, regardless of limited / open edition. I would love to hear your thoughts on that! :) I have a feeling we will be in complete agreement as to how we price our prints, but I think you’ll probably impart some wisdom I (and others) have not thought of.

  46. Jeremy says:

    Well I’m yet to sell prints, still setting up my website etc..This is something I’ve been thinking lots about lately..I suppose one positive to limited editions, is that it would allow you to eventually completely move on from a piece. I could see eventually getting tired of, or realizing some of your older work isn’t up to your current standards and not wanting to print them any longer. But I suppose you could just stop printing whenever you wished, but the limited editions might give buyers a heads up. Don’t really know where I’m going with this, just thoughts.

  47. Anil Rao says:

    I limit the size of my print editions simply because I have no desire whatsoever to make endless prints of the same images. The size of each edition is purely arbitrary and has nothing to do with price inflation. Toward that end, I can say that my prices (for limited edition prints) happen to be lower than what most folks replying here charge for their open-edition prints. Go figure!

    I find is amusing, to put it mildly, that someone will question the ethics of my decision, especially when I don’t owe anyone anthing when it comes to my art.

  48. Very interesting read and at least at this time I fall on the limited edition being a marketing direction I have no interest in taking.

    I can’t remember where I read it anymore to credit the original author but when I was exploring the subject a few years ago, I read an article in which a photographer who did limited editions had one really popular shot for which he constantly received requests. He had long since exhausted the number of prints and very honestly on his part turned away the requests for it. Who did limited editions help in this case? Certainly not the photographer who could have sold more but only collectors willing to part with their copies.

    It just seems daft to me, but maybe my opinion will mature.

    I have however considered raising prices on popular pieces, i.e. having a tiered approach. That seems to benefit both people in my mind. The original collector who was early to the show now has a print that has minimally increased to the price I have set for new prints and my best work would earn more. You could take it to the extreme where new copies of incredibly popular pieces were quite expensive although I honestly don’t know how I feel about that – mixed feelings to say the least.

    It all boils down to marketing to a degree, but I have to be comfortable with the taste of it and outright limiting of prints doesn’t appeal to me at all…

  49. Clive Frost says:


    “There is no arguing that marketing works, that limiting edition works, or that marketing is inevitable and necessary when considered within the confines of our competitive/capitalist system of commerce. Good or bad, I accept it. Let’s move on.”
    But you don’t appear to accept it, or are you just playing the agent provocateur for the purposes of stimulating a good discussion – which you have!

    “My intent was not to question whether these practices (however you choose to characterize them) work, but WHY they work, and whether the model in which they work is ethical and yields the greatest (social) benefit from and to art.”
    They work, or don’t work, to exactly the same degree and for exactly the same reasons that the capitalist/consumerist/competitive system works, or doesn’t work.
    The model is entirely ethical if both parties, the creator/seller of the edition and the buyer/collector of the edition, knowingly and honestly enter into the same understanding and agreement. This is exactly what the Eggleston/Sobel case, as I have currently read about it, is all about.
    It yields the greatest (social) benefit from and to art? This is a more tricky conundrum to address, but then just how long is a piece of string? The answer to this question must lie in examining the alternatives. Which are Guy?

    “Not all societies and cultures consider art a liquid commodity to be marketed and bargained for all its worth. Try to consider other perspectives and whether they might make more sense.”
    Putting aside for a moment all the artists and photographers (?) living in self sufficient communities in the middle of the Amazon Rain Forest, I very much like this quote posted by Kevin Geary in the Museum and Art Galleries Group over the weekend – “Personally, I am of the firm opinion that in Capitalism, ‘Man exploits man’ and in Communism it’s the other way around!”.

    “I do find it interesting that the only arguments raised so far regarding the motivation behind limiting editions have to do with revenue. Is this truly the only argument anyone can come up with in favor of imposing restriction on who gets to benefit from a high quality piece of art? Are there really no other reasons in favor of the practice? If not, what does that say about our collective perception of the role of art in our society?”
    Well like it or not, ‘art’, in our society, is a commodity and is therefore subject to the economic laws of supply and demand.
    I sell my work in editions because I put a certain value on my work, part of which is determined by the cost and time of making it and part of which is because I want (and need) to have the financial where with all to continue making it. I am not ashamed or shy to say that I have no interest whatsoever in selling my work for £20.00 or $20.00 in Walmart or Ikea – I would prefer to give it away!
    I recommend this book to you – ‘Why are Artists Poor?: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts by Hans Abbing’
    I also make no apologies for stating that imposing a restriction, by way of limiting editions of prints, doesn’t make any difference at all to the vast majority of people who are not in the slightest bit interested in owning or benefiting from a ‘high quality piece of art’ and probably wouldn’t recognise one if it ran up and slapped them in the face!


  50. Clive Frost says:


    “Who did limited editions help in this case? Certainly not the photographer who could have sold more but only collectors willing to part with their copies.”

    Good revolutionaries and (mostly) socialists that they are, the French have the Droit de Suite (meaning ‘right to follow’), an article of their code on intellectual property, which is a right granted to artists or their heirs to receive a fee on the resale of their works of art. It was first discussed around 1893 in order to support the ‘starving artist’.
    This right is mandated across the European Union and it officially became law in the United Kingdom on the 1st January 2012. Under the legislation, art dealers and auctioneers now have to pay the artist or their heirs or estates 4% of the sale price of artworks over £840. Each time you buy a piece of art covered by the Artist’s Resale Rights, legally you agree to also pay an amount equal to the resale royalty. Christie’s have even amended their Conditions of Sale and told successful bidders that the amount will be automatically added to their invoice!
    In California, the Resale Royalty Act entitles artists to royalties on the resale of their work, although some bright spark has called it unconstitutional under the terms of the Fifth Amendment.
    In the Philippines, the Intellectual Property Code grants to artists or their heirs 5% of the gross proceeds of the sale or lease of their art for their lifetime and for 50 years after his or her death.
    So the answer to Guy’s original question is simple – only sell your prints, limited editions or open editions, to the 27 members of the European Union, Californians or Filipinos!
    Warning – do not confuse Droit de Suite with Droit de Seigneur which gives you entirely different rights for which you won’t need your camera.

  51. jdb says:

    The other respondents covered much ground, which I won’t try and repeat since it is not my business – I’m just a hobbyist. But what I did grapple with after reading the original post was whether the question was ethical/moral, or simply practical. I looked up the definition of ethics & mores and saw much variability from high and almighty to basic social norms. My gut says that it’s not quite as weighty as an ethical decision, but hey, my gut has grown and learned over time…

  52. Roberta says:

    I started off with the intention of only doing signed and numbered prints with no ‘editions’. I feel much the same as you do Guy. But then I got in a commercial gallery that demanded I do editions, so I did. A lot of customers don’t care, but some do. So now I offer all three. Open editions (unsigned – print on demand that I don’t handle personally), signed prints, and a monthly print with an edition of 5. (Prices between signed and editions are exactly the same – with open editions being less.)

    Since I pulled my work out of all commercial galleries, I will probably not continue with editions after this year. I really don’t see the point. I don’t make a lot of prints period so if a buyer wants something that *may* have some future value, they can buy a signed print direct from me.

    In reality I think we, as artists/photographers, are probably dreaming if we think our work will appreciate in value after we’re gone, simply because of the glut of photography in the market today. Unless you get some notoriety or fame while you’re living I highly doubt any increasing value will be assigned to our photographs – irregardless of whether we make editions or not.

  53. Eric Fredine says:

    I agree that (in the majority of cases anyway) the purpose of limiting the number of photographic prints is to create a perceived sense of scarcity with the intent of justifying a higher price.

    That’s probably unethical not because it limits accessibility but because it’s a false promise. In most cases, the limit will never be reached and even if it is reached in most cases there is no secondary market. That is, there is no chance you will be able to resell the ‘limited edition’ for a higher price somewhere down the road. People will be able to buy one of their own or find an acceptable substitute. (So, in practice, in most cases, there is no actual limit on accessibility in any form other than the price charged.)

    There are certainly photographers who have images that are popular enough to sell out a reasonably sized edition. But, I doubt if they are also able to create a secondary market for their work without working within the confines of the ‘art market’. You need curators and gallery owners to be the market makers. And as it currently stands, I doubt it’s possible to work within that market without conforming to the expectation of limited editions. So, then your exhortation to not limit editions also becomes a plea to bypass the ‘art market’. Which is fair enough.

    So, I’d agree that photographers working outside of the ‘art market’ should not limit editions because it’s a misleading practice. Whether or not artists should submit to the trials and tribulations of that art market is another discussion I suppose – one which I’m entirely unqualified to comment on.

  54. jdb says:

    Hmmm… there goes that ‘unethical’ accusation again. I’m still not convinced. Just because a limited edition sets the expectation that a print might sell out? Hardly a ‘promise’, hardly coersion or hoodwinking. Just business.

    Last year we bought a print of an artist’s painting. Of course the painting itself was one of a kind, and she confirmed that her prints were reproduced in limited editions due to the stipulations of the galleries she worked with. But I’ll tell you what, we never considered that a print of interest might sell out before we cut a check. She was not coercing us into buying a print. Because there aren’t *that many* folks buying prints. All it meant was that a previous work, which we preferred, had already run its course and was unavailable. While I questioned to myself why she wouldn’t want to sell more of her wonderful prints, at no time did I find her approach unethical. Again, just business…

  55. Andy Nixon says:

    The ethics of the limited edition is interesting. What happens when you bump up against the limit? Blow past it? Have a new edition of the same print but just at a (slightly) different size. Too many people seem to play this game.

  56. David Kachel says:

    Let’s call this what it is: a scam.

    And it is not an artist’s scam. It is a speculator’s scam. The idea of limited editions is to reduce the number of prints the photographer can make, thereby increasing later resale. The end result is to remove any possibility the artist will make a living and place all of his potential earnings in someone else’s pocket.

    The right approach is to number prints and raise the price as sales progress. That way, the profit goes in the artist’s pocket and the speculators can go spit up a rope!

  57. Guy,

    You use to sell LE prints. Now you sell OE prints.
    How do you deal with past print buyers who bought under an LE model ? Seems like alotta tracking and morale obligation on your part to maintain understood terms you originally sold under.

    Thom Hogan told me years ago he didn’t want his art in every motel, hotel, Holiday Inn. Also, that art has a half-life, and the minute you offer it, it’s diminishing. Now lately, he’s offering a limited run”Gallery in a Box” or something like that. You buy his whole collection on a HD drive for some thousand or so dollars. (it was an April fools joke but people bought on! ) I’m not saying I agree with his ideals.

    Peter Lik, he’s maxing out his high edition counts.

    Vincent Versace is the one I originally heard say, my edition is limited by my morality. I’m sure it’s been said for a millennia… But who knows what your loved ones and your “estate” will do… ;~}

    I sorta like the idea of creating one print. One awesome huge ready to hang, as good as it gets print. That’s it. Like a sculpture. Not very realistic though.

    IMHO it’s your art, do what the fcuk you want with it. Ultimately, the market, or more so, your market, will be the judge.

    I have a ready to hang print order going freight over seas. Shipping alone is in the thousands. Cost to produce the print is in the thousands. The custom made crate is $500. It’s 96″ x 60″ done in the UltraArt (my seo trendy marketing sexy term [diasec]). Client never asked once about the edition…

    It’s a wacky wacky world.

  58. There have been some good articles written on this subject. It seems to me there are two critical points here:

    1) The photographer only benefits from a secondary market by creating demand for future work. As an “emerging” photographer, it’s tough to think there will be a secondary market for my work. I (and I think others) would like to be compensated fairly for work done now.

    2) What makes an edition? As illustrated by the recent blow-up over the new Eggleston prints, that line was a little blurry. One side issued new work in a different format suggesting it was a different edition, the other side believes that they are holding one of very limited set of work. Obviously, transparency is key.

    It seems to me that giving a buyer a good value, but at the same time sharing the risk of the purchase is acceptable. Who knows if any of us will be the next Eggleston? One solution I’ve seen implemented is a sliding pricing scale for open editions, whereby the first print from an edition is the least expensive and the pricing goes up more prints are produced. That protects the early investor, and creates equity for them through future sales. I don’t know if this system is effective but it seems intriguing. At some point the price for a new print from the edition would be prohibitively expensive–at least compared to whatever market value there is for the work, which would in effect close the edition.

  59. Just a quick follow-up. It took me a while to dig this up, but I found this post sometime last year. It has some interesting points about creating editions. It’s what got me thinking about an alternate way to create limited editions:

  60. “I can make enough for everyone, but I choose not to so only a small elite can afford to possess them,” how can I then claim that my goal is to inspire, to share, to make accessible, to celebrate, and other noble causes often associated with photography of natural things?”

    You’ve stirred up quite a controversy here, Guy, but my impression is that the controversy is less over whether limited editions are “ethical,” and more over your issues with the marketing and sales of photographic prints. Seriously, what happened to you in your upbringing or life experience that has made you so resistant to marketing? I know, we all have resistance to corporate domination of the airwaves and the continual barrage by the media and other influences in our society, but letting it get to the point of a chip on your shoulder will only hurt your own success. If you feel limited editions are unethical, you are entitled to your opinion, but imposing it on others is itself ethically questionable, in my opinion.

    Your statement above implies that photography should somehow be egalitarian. That everyone ought to be able to afford your photographs. The reality is that high quality fine art prints are somewhat elitist by their very nature. Can the millions of starving people around the globe be expected to afford a fine art print? If you want to make your art accessible to the masses, why not sell cheap post cards, or just print out your images on 8 ½ X 11 typing paper? Even posters for $25 are out of reach for the majority of people on the planet.

    There are very good reasons, beyond profitability, why photographers limit editions, though profit itself is certainly not unethical or sinister. The photographers who limit editions mainly do so because they are listening to their customers, either through galleries, or independently. One of the main roles of a gallery is to drive up the prices on prints. This can be seen as pure greed, or it can be seen as good for photography and good for photographers. The fact that the best prints by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro sell into the high five figures and even touch six figures, is good for photography as a medium. It goes a long way toward giving photographic prints the same kind of respect and provenance of other arts. It also makes possible for other photographers, the same rise to prominence.

    To understand why limited editions are necessary at all, it helps to get inside the minds of collectors. Think about it. You have made your fortune, or are fairly well off, and you decide you want to get into collecting. You start small and buy a number of prints, go to galleries, talk to dealers, attend auctions, read, go to lectures, learn all you can. Pretty soon you work your way up to the point where let’s say for example, you have picked out a certain print that you like for $3,000. If you are going to spend $3,000 of your hard earned, or ill gotten money, you want to MAKE DAMN SURE YOU ARE GETTING SOMETHING DIFFERENT AND MUCH BETTER THAN THE AVERAGE JOE OR JANE BUYING A PRINT FOR $300 OR THE COLLEGE DORM RESIDENT BUYING A POSTER FOR $30. That’s it. That is why there are distinctions such as “vintage” and “antique,” why the more difficult a print process is, the more collectible the print is, why artists are developed like movie stars, why digital prints are not yet of any interest to many collectors and why the fewer prints in existence of a given image, the better, as far as collectors are concerned. One of the main reasons my father wasn’t more well known was that he went against what the gallerists advised were good practices to establish value for collectors. I would caution that bucking the establishment, until we can pull it down brick by brick, will only hurt you and your work in the long run.

    My job is to drive up the prices on my father’s prints, not for my own enrichment, though if I’m smart and lucky that may be a happy byproduct, but because they deserve to be up there with any of the other masters. It’s about making sure that Dad’s work gets the recognition it deserves. A wise mentor of mine once said to never underestimate the importance of recognition and prestige in collector behavior or in the establishment of an artist. Some day I hope that “Minarets” will bring $100,000. When you look at the quality of the image and the quality of the printing, why shouldn’t Philip Hyde’s top print sell for as much as anyone else’s? Of course when “Minarets” is $100,000, “Moonrise” will be $10,000,000. It can be attributed to simple economics: the laws of supply and demand. Of course in the big picture, recognition, perpetuity and fame mean nothing, but then again, as you have often written, everything we do today as humans is impermanent and ultimately meaningless. It only has the meaning we give it, which is exactly the case with all products, not just photographic prints. We’ll all be stardust in the blink of an eye in universe time. However, I feel that since we’re here, why not do something “significant,” however
    you define it?

  61. Cecil Whitt says:

    Another article I enjoyed reading. Rather than comment on it I would rather comment on some statements by David Leland Hyde. “Seriously, what happened to you in your upbringing or life experience that has made you so resistant to marketing?”, geeze. Well, whatever happened to Guy in his upbringing I think a portion of that would have benefited Mr Hyde Jr. “I would caution that bucking the establishment, until we can pull it down brick by brick, will only hurt you and your work in the long run”, ridiculous! Let me see if I have this right. You can whore under the covers of the establishment while taking it down brick by brick?

    Now Mr. Hyde Sr. may or may not have been a decent man, but here’s a factoid. In his day as an artist he was a complete hack. His work now is almost infinitely irrelevant and will only become more so in the future if that is possible. Now I realize that there must be other dynamics at work for Hyde Jr., it was his father after all, but do us all a favor and lose the marketing thing, and let Hyde seniors work disappear to the ashcan of history where it most certainly belongs.

    To Guy, you must be doing something right to get these kind of reactions. Keep those articles coming and the best of wishes, C.

  62. pj says:

    @Cecil Whitt

    You’re certainly free to disagree with David Hyde, but why the cheap shot at Philip Hyde? It adds nothing to an otherwise interesting and spirited discussion.

  63. Interesting discussion. Pity about the insulting comment to David Hyde. I don’t find ethics to be particularly relevant to the topic. I see limited editions as simply a way an artist chooses to operate, neither ethical nor unethical. I’ve just released a series of prints limited to 10. I’m just not interested in making any more and charge what I think will turn over an adequate profit for time, funds and effort invested. Who is one artist to tell another how much they should charge or what number of prints they can make?

  64. Parnell says:

    I see the conflict of art and communication. Speaking as someone that has collected a few pieces for my home I appreciate that they have been part of a limited collection. In the world we live in the ability to replicate isnt just limited to photography. I have several giclee’s of paintings, photographs, and carvings that are all in some fashion copies of an original. It doesnt give me a sense of entitlement or stature but rather I appreciate that this is the only place I will probably view this artwork. If I see the same image or sculpture frequently it becomes commonplace, normal and diminishes somehow. Its the same reason I dont select something that is in every souvenir store while on vacation. Commonplace images is also what drives us to capture new, more unique perspectives so they are fresh and exciting. On the other hand with my own photography, your right, it is a medium that allows us to share that moment that inspires people, to see something that they wouldnt have or couldn’t have before that point. Is this conflict because photography has evolved out of a documentary background into the artistic world? Its funny because a with respect to painting, a giclee allows the painter to share this with more than the elite that can afford an original. WIth a photographer this is the opposite. However the limited editions allow both the photographer and painter to say this is still a unique piece. This completely conflicts with any effort to share. They are different motives and balancing them can be difficult. Thank you Guy for posting this. It never ceases that the conversations are interesting!

  65. My comment was not intended to insult Guy at all, but on re-reading it quite a few times, I can see how it could land that way. We were having a heated discussion on another topic elsewhere and part of that probably bled over into my comment. What we have here is exactly what is part of the problem on planet Earth, one perceived insult breeds another. Apologies to all for my part in it. If my comment had been less directed at guy personally, that part of my argument would have held up better, and it would not have been attacked. On some level while writing I must have felt my own weakness and vulnerability at having been a successful marketer, my own striving to do it ethically and being put down for “marketing” in a blanket way that shows no awareness of who I am.

    As for my father’s work, it will live on and is being perpetuated by many people and organizations. What I do or don’t do, may or may not amount to anything. If my father was a “hack” in his day, I don’t believe that most of the who’s who in photography of that time and this would consider him one of the best.

    Cynics will not inherit the Earth, contrary to appearances at times. However, it is usually cynics who are bitter toward those who have succeeded. Part of that bitterness comes from the “factoid” that cynics are usually that way because they are the ones who are forgotten on purpose.

  66. As for the relevance of my father’s work, the more people that do what he did, advocating for conservation with a camera, even being green at all, the more relevant his work becomes. He and others planted the seeds both in conservation and in landscape photography hoping that those who came later WOULD do it better.