My thoughts on Limited Editions

I recently went to a gallery with many beautiful works of art on display. A question arose on limited editions, and why I don't number my prints. I guess it is a many fold answer. Each print I make tends to be an original, even if it is of the same file. I find that I continue to work on a print, adjusting tonality, trying to get it just right for the specific paper, and to do the best I can for the image. I have found that several older images, made with older equipment, may be new to me. I have cataloged many old images and come across images I never printed, but with better skills and more advanced editing software, I am able to make a better image or print. I found that I was much better at Black and White images in Photoshop than dodging and burning with my Omega enlarger. A fresh look at old images have yielded great results. I hope, as I progress and software gets better, I can revisit many images to improve them. I have primarily shot RAW from my beginning with digital imaging, and have adopted DNG as my primary file type. I try to work as non-destructively as I can, keeping the original raw file and working in Camera Raw or Lightroom. I can go back, create a virtual copy, change the file, and save it as a copy. I can change how I edit the file, how I print it, make paper specific changes, and still have a DNG file with the original raw information. While I did that in part to keep my file sizes down, and to control my image library, it has had the added benefit of letting me go back and work on the older images. I still save images to final "master" files, particularly where there has been extensive work or paper specific final edits, and keep them as Master files (with the term Master included in the filename).

I understand that many limited editions came from the printing world, where a pull of paper over a plate or woodcut would eventually erode away the image, so it was limited to prevent image degradation. With DNG files and non-destructive editing, you are not throwing pixels away. Yes, a jpeg may never be the same once saved, but most photographers who make limited editions would not shoot jpegs straight out of the camera.

Years ago I got to see two separate Ansel Adam's Exhibits, Ansel at 100 in Brooklyn, and a similar exhibit in Boston at the Museum of Fine Art. I also saw many original prints at The Eastman House in Rochester, and the instruction panel (wall size) on how he printed Moonrise. What struck me the most was how Ansel's printing changed over the years, some say in part due to his eyesight, part due to what people came to expect seeing duotone images in magazines or books. He started with a much softer tone, early on with albumen papers, and later printed with greater contrast. Two prints of Aspens in Brooklyn showed the difference of time, as they has them side by side, with one looking it was made with a 1 filter, and the other a 4 or 5 filter, for those who remember multigrade papers. I walked away not really sure which one I liked better, but understood that it could be printed either way. How would a collector, or a photographer, view those much different prints? Would they be of the same "limited edition" made years apart? Ansel did not limit his photographs, in fact, he was very prolific with many of his more famous prints. The sheer number has not detracted from the price.

When I first started to print in the darkroom, I found wonderful advice from a set of books written by David Vestal. He was the most insightful person I ever read on Photography, both on the why, which was most important to him, and the how. He wrote incredibly insightful articles for Photo Techniques, a great old black and white magazine, and his self-published GRUMP. A blog before there were blogs. David wrote about whatever he felt, sometimes it included photography, sometimes writing, and sometimes life. I had the pleasure of meeting with him in Connecticut, and having him go over my early efforts. He was a true gentleman. In his usual style, he did a complete survey on limited editions and printed his results. He contacted as many photographers as he could go find out if they limited or numbered prints, if so how many in an edition, and how many were sold. He got great results, and found that most sales were of ten or less prints. He found that photographers who did not create limited editions often made as few as five prints of great images. Yes, limiting an edition may make some sales go up, but what happens to a limited edition when the best print sells out. Who benefits then? Often not the photographer. Does a number make it a better print? Is an early numbered edition better than a later number edition? Probably not as someone gets more familiar with the image, the printer, the paper and the ink.

I prefer to make my prints, and sign the original image or mat. My preferred paper, at the present time, is a fine art matte paper, such as Moab Entrada Rag, or Epson Hot Press Natural or Hot Press Bright. I love the texture and the feel of the paper. It takes me back to my wet darkroom days. And I like to sign my name in pencil on the print, and leave a border for the print on the over mat.  I used to dry mount my black and white prints, but still to this day attach my business card to the back of the mat, and sign the mat with the name of the image and copyright date on the back. When someone gets my photograph, whether matted or matted and framed, they get my print with two original signatures. This is my certificate of authenticity. It means this is the best image I made of that file at that time. I may change my mind on how to better print it, but I liked it enough to print and matte and even frame it.

David Vestal passed away last December. He was making images and teaching photography well into his 80s. He used to say he would teach black and white photography, as that was what he knew, but he was not adverse to new things. He made inkjet prints late in life, and seemed quite taken with what the new medium could do. I bought several of his inkjet prints. I found an article in Photo Techniques on the web by him, discussing the value of old prints. It is not my article, and I include the link to his thoughts on making newer prints. It is "vintage" Vestal. Check it out here.