Dean M. Chriss

Limited Edition Photographic Prints
More limiting than you might guess
Updated: September 4, 2013; Written: December 24, 2009

Moonrise, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Moonrise, Bryce Canyon National Park
In printmaking an edition is a number of prints struck from the same plate, usually at the same time. The concept of limited editions is very old and easy to understand in its original context. When making prints with metal or wooden plates and ink, the plates wear. The first prints are the best and after some number of prints are made the plates wear enough that the artist is unhappy with the resulting prints. At that point the plates are destroyed since the artist wants to eliminate the possibility that anyone might make unauthorized or substandard prints of the image. The artist signs and numbers the prints he is happy with and that's how the edition is limited. The first print of the edition often brings a premium as do prints with lower numbers. That's because the plates had the least wear when these prints were produced, and these are therefore considered the best of the edition. This all makes perfect sense, but it has nothing in common with modern photographic processes.

Modern photographic images are stored on film or digital media. Film is either printed by traditional means in a darkroom or it is digitized and then printed in the same way digital captures are printed. Archivally processed film does not degrade or wear out when handled properly. Digital files, whether they originate from film or a digital camera, never degrade with use. New printing materials and technologies evolve over time, often making later prints better and more like the artist intended, than earlier prints. Obviously one can make an unlimited number of photographic prints with each successive print being as good as, or better than, all of its predecessors. Nothing inherent in this medium suggests any limit, so in this context limited editions are nothing more than a contrivance.

No universal definition of what constitutes an edition of photographic prints exists, so things get pretty complicated. Some photographers create editions based on the image itself, so an edition of 200 means that no more than 200 copies of the image will ever exist in all sizes combined. That is the most conservative and least used approach. Most photographers who offer limited edition prints have open or unlimited editions of smaller prints. They offer limited editions of larger sizes, with each size constituting a different edition with a different number of total copies. Using this approach it is possible to make a new edition by making prints that are sized differently than those that already exist, which makes the word "limited" pretty meaningless.

Regardless of the definition used for "limited", it is very clear that all copies must be guaranteed identical if the word "edition" is to have any meaning. That means every print in an edition should be printed at the same time, on the same paper, using the same ink and equipment. This is virtually never done. Instead, most photographers print successive copies on demand, often over a period of many years. How is it possible to produce an edition over a period of years or even decades with any hope that the first and last copies will be identical? What if a printer must be replaced after an edition is started but before it is completed? Unless the replacement is exactly the same make and model the prints will never be identical. Similarly, what if the paper is discontinued? There are more subtle issues like the age of the ink used and different versions of printer drivers and firmware that are commonly updated several times per year. Determining whether anything has changed is impossible unless the photographer retains an early copy, stores it archivally, compares it with each subsequent copy, and destroys any copy in which the slightest difference can be detected. If a difference does exist, even if it is for the better, the photographer must find a way to eliminate it. As you may have guessed, most photographers conveniently ignore this.

The maximum number of prints in a limited edition can be guaranteed only by destroying the film or all copies of all files used to make the prints, but no one does that either. In the end "limited edition" means the photographer has picked one of any number of arbitrary rules to set a completely unverifiable limit on the number of copies he or she promises to make from an original that will probably be around forever. There are only two reasons anyone would put up with such a nonsensical set of arbitrary constraints. The first is to command a higher price from people who think this artificial construct actually means something. The second is to get into art shows that require it for the same reason. Even expensive prints do not return much profit based on the total cost of capturing images, producing prints, and selling them. Because of that I can't take much issue with photographers who produce limited edition prints, even though I'd like to.

But, limited editions do not always result in higher overall profits for the photographer. The fact is that active photographers are always producing new images and as a result they stop making older ones. Many "unlimited" images may sell less than a dozen prints in total because the photographer moves on to new work. At the same time a photographer may keep producing images that remain very popular. Limiting the number of such images limits profits unless the photographer can guess in advance which images they will be, which is nearly impossible, and put an astronomical price tag on them. In the end it's only a game and it's not worth playing, at least not for me.

The real tragedy in limited editions is that they prevent the photographer from realizing the full potential of an image by utilizing new knowledge, materials, and processes as they evolve. In making the first print in a limited edition the photographer promises that the image will never be better than it is at that moment. In my opinion this suffocates the real spirit of artistic photography.

Happy print numbering!


P.S.: Ansel Adams did not number his prints, and the prints he produced late in his life are considered to be the best he ever created. He was of the opinion that photography was an inherently limitless media and limiting it artificially was pointless. He, Edward Weston, and many of the best contemporary photographers refrain from limiting prints for similar reasons. It's interesting, and a bit humorous, that these icons of photography would actually be excluded from some of today's art shows for not numbering their prints. If that's not ridiculous I'm not sure what is.