Limited Edition Prints of Digital Photography (rants and excuses)

Heck with all this. Read Brooks Jensen’s article.

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CAUTION: This post is outdated. I have changed my mind about this topic. See this post for more.

My rule for numbering limited editions:
“Due to the digital nature of my work, the edition number represents the total number of impressions irrespective of physical print size.”

Several people have told me that I improperly number my prints. I think their complaints need to be addressed. Here comes a rant.

Background

The concept of numbering a print comes from traditional printmaking, where each print was a copy from an original master, and each print would be slightly different from the previous one due to slight wear on the printing plate after each use. A small ‘fraction’ is written in the lower-left containing the size of the edition, and the number of that specific print. For instance, “9/12” represents print 9 in an edition of 12 total prints.

Customers would know how many copies of a given piece were in circulation, as well as which copy they would be purchasing.

For the artist, there are allowances & rules to numbering:

Allowances

  • New prints don’t need to be printed all at once.
  • New prints don’t need to be numbered in the order they were printed.

Rules

  • Don’t duplicate numbers. New prints must not contain the number of an existing print.
  • Don’t change the total. The number representing the total number of prints in an edition cannot change once it has been set for an edition.
  • No “secret” prints. New prints of an already-numbered image must be included in the existing edition. (not including Artist Proofs or HC)
  • Close the edition. The artist must cease production of the print once the edition has been filled.
  • Size restriction. When printing the same work in a different size, a new edition must be created for that new size.

Here’s How I Do It

I will stop printing a given image once I reach a certain number of copies. If one copy is a different size from another, so be it.

For example, my edition for “Moonrise, Gloss Mountains” is going like this:

Number – Size of Print
numbers 1-3 have not been printed
4/250 – 18″
5/250 – 12″
6/250 – 12″
7/250 – 12″
8/250 – 18″
9/250 – 18″
10/250 – 24″
11/250 – 24″
12/250 – 24″
13/250 – 18″
14/250 – 18″
15/250 – 18″
16/250 – 12″
17/250 – 12″
18/250 – 12″
19/250 – 18″
20/250 – 18″
21/250 – 18″
22/250 – 12″
23/250 – 12″
24/250 – 12″
25/250 – 12″
26/250 – 12″
27/250 – 12″
28/250 – 18″
29/250 – 18″
30/250 – 18″
31/250 – 18″

This means I have these 12″ prints:

5/250
6/250
7/250
16/250
17/250
18/250
22/250
23/250
24/250
25/250
26/250
27/250

…these 18″ prints:

4/250
8/250
9/250
13/250
14/250
15/250
19/250
20/250
21/250
28/250
29/250
30/250
31/250

…and these 24″ prints:

10/250
11/250
12/250

Now tell me, what rule(s) am I breaking?

  • Don’t duplicate numbers – I’m not duplicating any numbers.
  • Don’t change the total – Every print has the same edition size written on it.
  • No “secret” prints – I am not selling any copies of that specific image outside of the edition (I guess you’ll just have to take my word on that).
  • Close the edition – Since I haven’t printed the full complement of the edition, I haven’t had to close it.
  • Size restriction – There are several ways to look at this…

The ‘Size Restriction’ rule is weird..

When you break this rule, you’re still not really breaking the rule!

The allowances allow me to start my numbering at 4, and fill in the blanks later. (The first three are mine, and I’ll sell them when I feel like it.) To be honest, there’s nothing stopping me from starting my prints at the maximum number and counting backwards!

What if I admit that I am instead making three editions of 250 instead of one? I could make some 18″ prints; number them 5, 6, and 7 (which are currently used on 12″ prints) and it wouldn’t make a damned bit of difference.

In fact, I offer my prints in five sizes, not three: 12″, 18″, 24″, 30″, and 36″. If I followed the rule that I had to start a new edition upon printing a new size, and assumed that I would have an edition of 250 for each size, I would then have a maximum of 1,250 copies of a given image floating around, and not 250 as I planned. (What a bargain!)

What makes me curious is that the people who complain about my numbering process imply that having 1,250 images in circulation would make each print more valuable than if I only had 250! This claim is at at odds with simple economic rules of scarcity. At best, they claim that there is some sort of deception on my part when they find out that I don’t plan to print that many of each size. This brings up a discussion of the perceived difference in value between open and closed editions, but this is a different argument.

Somewhere in this mess are my excuses for doing it this way:

Excuse 1 : Ignorance

I honestly don’t know the rules for signing and numbering prints because there is no single codified set of standards. (I checked ISO, NIST, ANSI, IETF, and RFC and came up empty.) Outside of a few scant personal guidelines set by artists and critics, we got nothing.

Excuse 2 : Digital Media

I believe digital media should not be subjected to the same rules as traditional media.

A foundational attribute of digital media is that multiple copies of an item can be generated in perpetuity without error. Digital work is a string of zeroes and ones arranged in such a way so that computer programs can decode it and turn it into something meaningful. A digital print is created through a translation process where those zeroes and ones become signals that trigger the movement of an array of print heads which spray ink across a sheet of paper. Assuming the printing supplies (paper and ink) are replenished on a regular basis, each successive copy will be identical.

The box isn’t big enough for a Googol.

Gone are the days of an obvious “master” and “copy” — everything is the master copy, even the duplicates!

In printmaking, the master copy has an obvious physical size. You can get a ruler and measure it — it’s this big by that big.

In digital, the RAW file from a DSLR (the closest thing to a “master”) does not store a value for the final printed size, only pixel dimensions.

Setting the print size is a separate attribute from the creation process, and I allow customers to choose the final size based on their desired display of the work. If somebody wants a 96″ wide print to hang over their sofa, it’s quite ludicrous to create a whole new edition, and start the numbering at #1 just for that single print. Even if the edition size is small, it’s unfair to the owners of the other copies because they would be totally unaware of this new edition — as well as any other new editions that might pop up.

What if somebody wants a 95-inch print? or 95.9? Technically, yes that would generate a whole new edition because last I checked, 95.9 does not equal 96. (Sorry about being annoying and pedantic, but some people would rather me ditch everything I know about basic mathematics just to let them win an argument.)

By numbering on total impressions instead of size, I save myself and everybody else the trouble.

In Conclusion

No matter the reason, I will be telling customers about my numbering scheme up-front. This will be added to my “about” sign and printed on each COA.

The good news is that this process has generated some interesting side-effects:

  • If an image is damaged after a customer purchases it, I am willing to replace it. The replacement print will be the same size and number as the damaged print.
  • If a customer isn’t satisfied with the size of a print, I am willing to upgrade it to another size for the difference in price.

Better customer service is always a plus!

This entry was posted in Rants.