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)
About the Author (Author Profile)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.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Limited Editions – A good idea?? | April 8, 2012
- Links – April 13, 2012 « Beautiful Flower Pictures Blog: Floral Photography by Patty Hankins | April 13, 2012
- PhotoNetCast #69 - Limited Edition Prints | PhotoNetCast - Photography podcast | April 19, 2012