Photographic editions, series, and vintage prints

A question was recently posed to me by Alyson B. Stanfield (ArtBizCoach.com), who was asked the question by one of her students, “As a photographer I have the option of printing the same image in multiple sizes. Do the different sizes fall into the same edition or separate editions? I also will do the same image with different supports or using different processes. Does the edition follow the image/original negative or the unique characteristics of the final print?”

I get asked similar questions no less than a dozen times a year, and both are still good questions, mainly because the world of printmaking in the 21st century is very confusing and complex.

When I first started working in the art world (way back in the 1960s!), a limited edition print was a time-honored, credible, and just term. The more an image was printed, the more the “plate” deteriorated, so that the first prints off the press possessed more quality than one coming off at the end of the run. All prints were printed at the same time. In the contemporary art world, it is more of an oxymoron: limited edition may not mean limited edition at all. And… what is a series? What is a vintage print?

Let’s take the easier term first: vintage print. A vintage print is one that was printed at or very close to the original “capture” of the image. This is primarily used when attributing a print to an exposure on a negative. Easy.

When a “series” is discussed, the reference is mostly indicating a run of prints that are similar in subject matter. When we come to a “limited edition” that is another matter entirely. As I wrote previously, this term used to have a time-honored place in fine art, and its use was rich with integrity. Seldom is that true at this point in time.

In our chosen field of the fine-art market, we don’t carve an image out of stone, and create a print from the imprint on a limestone surface. With the mere press of a button we can run off dozens or even hundreds of EXACTLY the same image, print, after print, after print. It doesn’t matter if it is the first print from the printer or the last, the quality will be seemingly undetectable. The only actual limit being your inventory of ink, paper, or even stamina. 

So what “real” value does a limited edition print have? Honestly, not very much. Its value is only limited by what the market will bear. Many fine art photographers I know who print in editions, may only a print a few, say up to five, prints, simply because they don’t want to waste ink if print sales stall. So, if they plan on an edition of 50. Is it really an edition of 50 if only 5 prints are made?

When I started to do a bit of research on this topic, I came across an article by my friend, Brooks Jensen, editor of Lenswork. In his article, “What Size is the Edition?,” he explains it all much better than I. I would advise anyone who wants a clear understanding of “series” and “limited editions” to take at look at his article, here. You may not agree with what he writes, but it will certainly offer some solid food for thought.

About Tim

Tim Anderson is the former publisher/managing editor of CameraArts magazine, and now produces Red Dog News, a bi-weekly photography-related e-newsletter that goes out to more than 15,000 subscribers. For his personal photography, he specializes in fine art nudes, and recently participated in the show, "1x15." Anderson is a co-founder of Rio Grande Workshops, and manages several photography Websites and blogs, as well as his personal site (www.timothybanderson.com). He has juried all around the country for Review Santa Fe, Review LA, Photo Lucida, The Center for Fine Art Photography, The Gala Awards, The Palm springs Photo Festival, etc. He is also a published poet, and recently released (www.cygnetpress.com) a collection of his work, "Frame of Mind."
  • http://www.curtisneeley.com/FCC/booklet-complaint.htm curtisneeley

    I agree with Mr Jensen wholeheartedly. I can make a better print of ANY image you have ever seen done by Ansel Adams than Mr Adams could ever hope to print and larger than he ever did and then sell it to you cheaply.

    Any proficient photographer today could do the same exact thing. Photoshop and modern printing technology versus the archaic physical production process with all its limitations and potential flaws is an obviously unfair comparison.
    http://www.curtisneeley.com/