Editions & Multiples in Photo-Based Art
Welcome to the first installment of the FFOTO blog. These posts will cover topics of interest to collectors and fans of photo-based art, offering insight and information about this growing sector of the fine art market.
FFOTO blog entries will usually follow a Q&A format, often featuring responses by respected international photography dealer Stephen Bulger, of Stephen Bulger Gallery. Other commentary and content will come from special guests – collectors, curators, artists and other figures from the art world.
Your input will help shape the content of future posts, so please tell us the things you’d like to learn more about. Drop me a note at Craig@FFOTO.com.
–Craig D’Arville, COO, FFOTO
Let’s get into our first topic: Editions & Multiples in Photo-Based Art
For many, the idea of printing and marketing multiples of a work of art is fairly straightforward: Based on interest and demand, artists determine how many copies to produce of a work – known as “the edition” – and then they make those works available to collectors. But in fact, the importance of editioning is essential to organizing an artist’s output, and is necessary to distinguish provenance across collections. As technologies advance, and as artists develop new and interesting ways to present their work, the familiar editioning model is evolving to accommodate individual artist practices. In this Q&A, art dealer Stephen Bulger addresses some of the innovative variations in editioning standards related to photo-based works of art.
FFOTO: Photo-based art is often presented for sale as a series, or edition, of works. The most familiar editioning format presents prints numbered as “an edition of five, plus one A/P”, or something similar along those lines. How do you think that editioning conventions in the world of photo-based art are evolving as compared to other forms of contemporary art multiples?
STEPHEN BULGER: There seems to be a bifurcation of editioning methodology among photo-based artists. On the one hand, many contemporary artists who make large works in small editions (i.e. a run of 2, 3, or 5 prints, let’s say) will, on occasion, also release that same image, or an image not previously available, in a smaller size but in a much larger edition of perhaps as many as 100 or more prints. Conversely, traditional photographers, who would have set editions of, say, 25 prints a few years ago, are increasingly lowering the size of their editions to 10 prints, or fewer.
FF: Clive Holden, with his INTERNET MOUNTAINS project, uses a novel editioning system. Each of his current works are being offered as “one of 1, + 3 variants”. Can you explain how that works?
SB: Although Clive’s work is rooted in digital technology, which could allow for endless copies that are virtually identical, he only releases for sale one copy of anything he produces. Each of his variants is recognizable as part of a series when compared to its source, but still distinctly different from each other. Another way to describe his methodology is to say that Clive makes four variations on a theme, and each variation is in an edition of 1/1 (+ Artist Proofs for public exhibition, which in Clive’s case are not for sale).
Sarah Anne Johnson, Drooping Flowers and Beer, 2016 © Sarah Anne Johnson / Stephen Bulger Gallery
FF: Sarah Anne Johnson, a multidisciplinary artist, has a practice that often involves working on top of the surface of a printed photograph, thus creating a unique work of art with each print. Are works like those considered one-offs, or can they be part of a numbered, editioned series?
SB: Within a particular project, Sarah releases different images in different ways. Some pieces are 1/1, but others might be 1/3; however, because of the amount of hand-made interventions on the surface of her prints, if one were to place all three side-by-side, no two would look identical. They might even be different sizes. Comparatively, Sarah’s images that do not have handwork are often released in a larger edition of 5 or 7 prints.
FF: Can you cite any other examples of artists, working now or in the past, who have established innovative editioning systems in the world of photo-based art?
SB: I think Ray K. Metzker was the first person I heard of that incorporated an edition which saw prices increase on a particular schedule as the edition sold out. Many people use this system because it acknowledges the rarity of a popular editions’ remaining examples, and it also helps to keep the starting prices at a lower level.
Volker Seding was the first person I knew to use what we call a “universal” or an “umbrella” edition. This term indicates that the stated edition (i.e. 1/10) includes any and all sizes that the artist will make from that negative, or file.
FF: Does it make sense to consider somebody like Andy Warhol as a “proto-digital” influence through his screen-printing practice that saw him making works, plus variants of those works, based on figures from pop culture?
SB: Warhol is an interesting person to consider, but his practice calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which draws distinctions between hand-made and machine-made objects, whereas artists using digital tools have to make a conscious decision to make a unique print. This approach informs Clive Holden’s editioning methodology, as mentioned earlier. It’s an ingenious way of using digital tools to create unique artworks.
FF: What considerations are necessary when determining how to value these differently editioned works? That is, are collectors savvy to the distinction between unique photo-based works versus the evaluations that are usually encountered around series of photographs that might have larger, and identical, editions?
SB: I think it is important for the edition to be clearly stated, or if it is part of an open edition, the photograph should be clearly authorized by the artist. In the end, the value is determined by supply vs. demand. Something 1/1, it is undeniably rare, but its value is driven because of the significance of the person who made it, and the demand for their work.