Perhaps the most common question I hear in the gallery is, "Why doesn't he limit his editions; can't he just turn out thousands of prints?" As anyone knows who understands what goes on in the darkroom, a photographer laboring to make fine prints cannot make anywhere near "thousands of prints", even if he spent a lifetime at it.
Unlike setting up a press and running off, say, a thousand lithographs all in one printing session, a photographer must tediously make each photograph one at a time. Only one photograph I know of approached a thousand copies. It was Ansel Adams' "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico", and those prints were made over a 40 year span (although the majority were made in the 1970s).
Most well known photographers seldom make more than 25 to 50 prints of any image. Nevertheless, for many decades collectors of other art on paper media have been use to the concept of limited editions, and they feel more comfortable buying limited pieces. Frequently, photographers represented by galleries that carry other media are encouraged to limit their editions so clients will feel more secure in their photographic art investment. There really is not an intrinsic reason to limit photographs because unlike a lithographic printing stone, the negative generally does not wear out. Also, some say the important "secondary market" for art (auctions, consignment sales, etc.) will never be realized with unlimited editions, but actually there are plenty of works "out there" by non-limiting photographers.
As a dealer, it really is easier to say that a print is part of a limited edition rather than going through a lot of explaining. One compromise that a number of photographers use (Christopher Burkett and Dan Burkholder, for example) is to raise the price on an image when it reaches a certain number of prints and not have an upper limit.
Whatever an individual photographer decides to do is fine with me. There are plenty of arguments that I have not covered here. For example, some people limit their editions to small numbers as a way of pushing themselves on to make more photographs, and others do not limit because they do not want to deal with the paperwork.
To those prospective buyers concerned about investment, there is an interesting observation regarding those Moonrise prints mentioned earlier. Although that photograph was produced in large numbers, on the secondary market it is still commanding a much higher price than any of Adamsí other images created in far fewer numbers. (March 16, 1997)
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