of an image produced in a different medium.
In other words, the law in New York seems to
allow for multiple editions of photographic
works, as long as buyers are notified of earlier
editions. (Laws governing limited editions and
multiples vary by state, but California’s law is
similar to New York’s.)
While Eggleston may have the law on his
side, not everyone thinks he has the moral high
ground. Novak, for one, minces no words.
“Whether it’s illegal or not, it’s unethical”
to issue new editions that previous buyers
had no warning might be created, he says. “It
hurts the people you’ve sold to previously.”
And photographers hurt themselves by diluting the market value of their work and their
name, which takes so much effort to build up
in the first place.
“It’s greedy and piggish,” he continues.
“I find it disgusting. I recently walked away
from a photographer who did this … When
you tell the market, ‘I’m going to limit,’ then
you lie by doing other editions, you should
be punished for it.” (Novak says multiple editions are OK as long as the photographer announces all of them before he or she starts
selling any of them.)
What galls many successful fine-art photographers is that the direct benefits of the
rising value of their work goes mostly to
collectors, in the form of fantastic gains on
the resale value of their prints. That’s often
what drives photographers to issue new editions after previous editions have sold out:
They want to profit from their name and
work—which seems, after all, like a divine
right of capitalism—and not leave all the
spoils to collectors.
Sobel’s lawyer counters that artists benefit financially by limiting their editions:
Collectors pay a premium to buy limited-edition prints from artists like Eggleston in
the first place. The limit raises the present
value of the work, because it is more likely
to increase in value later on than a print that
isn’t limited. Moreover, if collectors like Sobel
help drive up a photographer’s name recognition by bringing their current work into
public awareness, the photographer can then
charge higher prices than they otherwise
might for prints of their later work.
Novak agrees with that argument. “But a
lot of photographers don’t have confidence
in themselves, or their ability to produce ne w
work,” he adds, so they issue new editions
of old work and “lots of dealers continue to
sell it.” One consequence of this practice is
that many art collectors don’t buy photog-
raphy, he says. “They shy away from tradi-
tional photographers because they can’t
trust them.” (By traditional photographers,
he means documentary or commercial pho-
tographers who cross over into the fine-art
market, as opposed to artists who use pho-
tography as a medium.)
For much of the twentieth century, most photographers didn’t
issue limited-edition prints. Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Robert
Frank, Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander and others printed
on demand. Edward Weston, one of the first to issue limited
editions, was an exception, but didn’t complete many of his
editions because demand didn’t warrant it.
In the Seventies, Ansel Adams announced he would stop
printing his images, which drove up the prices of his work. By
the late-Eighties, the idea of limiting editions to create scarcity
and drive up prices started to catch on among many photo
dealers and photographers.
“The typical edition was 50 to 100” prints at that time, says
dealer Alex Novak. Ironically, the practice of issuing limited
editions increased the supply of photographic prints, notes
Stephen Perloff, editor of The Photo Review. Photographers
used to print as needed, usually only a few images at a time,
he explains. Once they started printing entire editions, a lot of
prints got made, but many never sold.
Of course, the market (collectors, dealers, photographers)
focuses attention on the effects of scarcity on the images
that sell, not the images that sit in dealers’ drawers.
Adams’s “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” which the
photographer printed more than 1,000 times, is the oft-cited
example. The prints still fetch tens of thousands of dollars,
which begs the question: What might it be worth if there
were far fewer of them?
Which brings us to contemporary artists like Andreas
Gursky, who prints his works in large formats, and in editions
of fewer than ten. One of his works, “Rhein II,” was auctioned
last fall for $4.3 million. (The work was from an edition of six.)
Perloff observes, “The numbers in an edition have
definitely decreased. Ten used to be very rare, fewer unheard
of. Now they’re common. It started with the ‘artists’ and
migrated to the ‘photographers.’ Eggleston is a fine example
as his dealers try to move him into the contemporary art
market both by making much larger prints and by making
much smaller editions.”
Photographers face a dilemma in determining the size of
their editions: How to balance the positive effects of scarcity
on price against the negative effects of closing off their
artistic (and economic) options. Setting an edition size is a
crapshoot, though, because there’s no way to predict future
demand for your work.
What hasn’t changed, though, are the long odds against
any demand at all. Only a tiny fraction of limited editions ever
sell out. Making a work scarce doesn’t boost its value unless
collectors take an interest in the work for some other reason
first (e.g., the work is esthetically stunning, or it’s by, say,
Gursky.) Then, limiting the number of copies can be a huge
benefit, and a trap, too.