Page 1, version 1.1, © 2001 by Dale Cotton, all rights reserved.
A subject that frequently recurs on photography forums is limited vs. open editions. Whenever a photographer starts thinking about selling his prints this becomes an issue he is forced to confront.
In the world of art galleries the issue is fairly cut-and-dry. The painter sells the original painting for a large sum but also sells lithographed reproductions in "limited" editions. Reproductions of painting X may be available as 500 of 12"x15" prints at $100 each, 100 of 16"x20" at $200 each, and 50 of 20"x27" at $500 each. Each such print will be hand-numbered in the lower left corner, such as 152/500, indicating the 152nd of 500 copies; and hand-signed in the lower right corner, indicating that the artist has inspected and approved that particular copy. In theory, this sounds like a well-defined contract between artist and purchaser, but in practice the waters often get muddied over time. For example, a common practice of successful artists whose most popular repro editions have sold out, is now to re-release them as "giclée" canvases.
But beyond that – what does it mean to limit an edition? The tradition goes back to carved wood block prints. Because the wood block wore down as many impressions were taken from it, the prints formed a naturally limited edition. Further, earlier impressions would be crisper than later ones, making them more valuable. But lithography imposes no such limit to the size of an edition. The edition size arbitrarily originates from the artist.
For most of the last century photographic prints also constituted a naturally limited edition. Each print was handmade in a darkroom; if Edward Weston wanted to sell more than one copy of a particular image, he would have to dodge and burn each one individually – an exacting and time consuming process.
Now, with the advent of the the digital darkroom, a simplistic interpretation would suggest that the photographer could open an image file in Photoshop, click print, set the number of copies to 100, and voilá! instant edition! In fact, there are enterprises that exist to do just that.* So yes, the option does now exist in photography to mass produce prints. The artifically limited edition is an option if you want to go that route; and the reason you would want to go that route is inertia: galleries and their customers are both familiar with and comfortable with that business model.
However, the digital darkroom also opens up other possibilities. In particular, something called JIT, or Just In Time, in the manufacturing world springs to mind. Why print 100 identical copies of an image on speculation that all 100 sell? Most of us have better uses for our time and our capital than that. If I am going to print an image for sale, I am going to use my own printer, which is exactly tuned to my own colour management, print on precisely the paper I find best suited to that image, tune the print to maximize its goodness on that paper, etc. If the personalization of simply signing a print adds a bit value, how much more value is added by the artist having actually herself made the print? If the artificial scarcity of an artificially limited edition adds value to a print, how much more value is added by the natural limit to an edition that derives from the fact that Artist A produced XX prints in 2005 and – come 12:01 AM January 1, 2006 – nothing short of time travel is ever going to change that fact? And if I own 2005-16 no one else in the world can. The possibilities for the collector are breath-taking. What price 2005-16 to the collector who owns 2005-14, 2005-15, and 2005-17?**
Beyond that, JIT is all about flexibility. If customer A wants picture P printed at 10"x15" and customer B wants the same picture P printed at 16"x24", nothing prevents the photographer from fulfilling both orders. Similarly, if the photographer sees that picture P works far better as a 12"x16" print than it does at any other size, there's now no reason to shoehorn it into an 8"x11" sheet or stretch it out of shape at 16"x20". Conversely, if a gallery invites you to show six prints, nothing prevents you from sizing and framing them all identically, nor do you have to omit an image because it has sold out.
Editioning is something I've been mulling over for the past few years. When the idea of per anno editioning finally popped into my head, everything immediately fell into place: it simply fits the way the digital artist works; we have the technology that enables us to return to the model of the craftsman in his shop. Why try to revert to the assembly line model of a different time and place? My role model is Geppetto, not Henry Ford.
* ... and if I received a request for 100 copies of one of my images I might well be tempted to hire one of those enterprises to do the job. My spiffy new Epson 4000 printer takes only 15 minutes to complete a large print; if I use thinner stock I wouldn't even have to hand feed each sheet. Do I trust it to print multiple copies without a catastrophic jam? – sure, just like I leave a pound of ground round thawing on the kitchen table with the family dog loose in the house.
** Hopefully, this appeal to the collector's cupidity will help to make up for one downside to this model. If the collector owns one of a small limited edition that has closed, in theory his copy has gone up in value should he choose to sell. This cannot happen to an open edition until the artist dies. (Of course, the collector, recognizing that fact, might consider hastening that moment's arrival... ;)