The Madness of Limited Editions

Over the years I have lost more than a few handfuls of print sales to the uneducated buyer who insist on buying only limited edition inkjet prints. I can recall with clarity the day I realized that inkjet prints should be part of my of my portfolio. I was showing my platinum palladium work at a gallery in the fall of 2010. Off the to side was a display table. I placed some of the working platinum palladium prints on the table to showcase the printing process that I use. One of the guests viewing the prints fell in love with a smaller panoramic platinum palladium print. The young woman very much wanted to buy the print. She was a college student and couldn't afford a platinum palladium print. Had I been thinking fast enough, I could have offered her a digital copy of the print. The potential sale of the inkjet print was not motivated by profit. My motivation to sell a more affordable inkjet print was very simplistic in nature. Keep the customer happy. The platinum palladium print is more of an investment for the serious art lover and collector. The inkjet print is great for visual appeal at a more affordable cost. Some buyers will ultimately decide to buy an inkjet print. The highest compliment that I can achieve is to have a paying customer hang one of my prints on their wall. Inkjet or platinum palladium is not the issue. This is about showcasing art. After that art show I decided to pursue the sale of my images as inkjet prints. What I found was far beyond what I could have imagined. The next potential sale came a few months after that art show. I was showing my portfolio to a potential customer. He wanted to hang some black and white prints in his new multi-million dollar home. We spent about an hour looking at images. He picked out a total of nine images. Then he dropped the bombshell. He would only buy “limited edition prints”. His financial advisor had indicated that the only print worth buying were limited edition prints. I stated that my inkjet prints are not limited and he should consider investing in some of my platinum palladium prints. I'll cut to the chase and say that he told me “a simple photograph” was not worth the prices I was asking. He further indicated that I should lower my prices. I attempted to explain the pricing structure for my platinum palladium prints. The words coming out my mouth fell straight to the floor, thus bypassing his ears. My prices for platinum palladium prints are well within reason and are not overpriced. I thanked him for his time and made the one hour drive home back home pondering what had just happened. I did further research on limited edition inkjet prints. What follows could only be described as some of the highlights of what I found.

When Is Limited Really Limited?

The practice of limited edition prints in the art world is perhaps one of the most mystical areas that can be touched upon. The origins of the limited edition print dates back to the nineteenth century. Limiting the amount of prints made was a common practice for most forms of print making. The etchings and plates used for print making would deteriorate with each print made. The earlier prints made were the most sought after and often would fetch the most amount of money. That makes perfect sense. The best quality print should cost the most. Now we fast forward to the present.

The practice of limiting prints has taken a rather questionable turn down the dark path of marketing. This would exclude the modern-day traditional print makers and the practitioners of historical photography processes. The questionable area that I am talking would be the limited editioning of inkjet prints. This is where clarification is in order. The inkjet print has undergone a change in terminology. Regardless of the terms, the inkjet print is still an inkjet print. Here are some common names for inkjet prints. These terns are explained to further understand the mystery of the limited edition inkjet print.

Giclée Print – The origins of this term dates back to 1991. The Giclée (Zhee-Clay) print was made on a special high-end printer. The printer was manufactured by the Iris Graphics Company. Iris printers were expensive, temperamental and used a specific ink set and workflow. Over time the Iris printer gave way to inkjet printers. The Giclée process is no longer used, yet the term has stuck for any print made digitally. I suspect the use of the term Giclée sounds more fancy pants for some. The reality is an inkjet print is an inkjet print and not a Giclée print, no matter the claims of the artist producing the print.

Carbon Print – The carbon print is named for the carbon based black and white inks used to produce the inkjet print. This term can be confused with the nineteenth century carbon transfer process. The carbon transfer process is a very moody and temperamental process that can produce a very real three-dimensional print. Carbon transfer prints are hand crafted and are entirely different from carbon inkjet prints. The perceived value of a digital carbon print comes in terms of archival stability. Carbon based inks are very stable and relatively archival. That same statement is not true for the pigment inkjet print. Carbon inks can extend the life of a properly maintained inkjet print. The jury is still out on the longevity of carbon based inks used to produce an inkjet print. Carbon prints are limited to black and white. There is not such animal as a color carbon print.

Pigment Print – Another confusing term. The more appropriate term would be digital pigment print. The images are printed with pigment based inks. Welcome to the world of the modern inkjet printer. I use an Epson SureColor P7000 24” professional photo printer. The P7000 uses pigment inks. I have yet to find a paying client that cares what type of inks are used to print my images on inkjet media. This is simply another misleading buzzword overused by the marketing folks to hype the inkjet prints.

Now we can proceed to the heart of the matter. The use of limited edition inkjet prints. Historically the use of limited edition prints was twofold. The first reason has already been touched upon. The fragile nature and life expectancy of hand etched plates was limited. The plates could only last so long. The second reason for limited editions is related to a more complex reality of the hand crafted artistic process. Sooner or later the artist will decide that enough is enough. I limit my platinum palladium prints for this very reason. The platinum palladium process is very slow and labor intensive. Cranking out hundreds of platinum palladium prints in an edition is not very practical. The hybrid approach I use for printing my images involves a digital negative. The in-camera negatives I expose are scanned on a high-resolution drum scanner. The high resolution file is then adjusted for contrast and printed onto a special material for producing digital negatives. I could easily print negative after negative to replace the damaged and worn out negatives. This would allow me to print hundreds if not thousands of the same image. That might sound like a profitable idea, yet I can promise you the opposite is true. The serious collector would look at the bloated edition size as a means of profiting at the expense of the buyer. And that is exactly the problem. Limited edition platinum palladium prints are in every sense of the word limited to a small number of finely produced prints. To go beyond the reasonable amount of prints would be diving into the world of the inkjet print.

I often laugh inside when I see an inkjet edition of 300 prints for each size offered. The math works out to around 1,200 to 1,800 prints per image. I am at a serious loss as to how this is truly a limited edition. The math gets worse when you factor in all of the different images offered by the particular photographer. I have seen some of these photographers that have a hundred or so different images for sale as limited edition. This is counter intuitive toward the concept of selling limited editions prints. I wish that was the end of the madness, yet we are not even close yet.

The limited editions typically increase in the selling price as the edition sells out. The most employed method of the edition comes in the tiered level system. There are typically three or four tiers. A tier is simply a number or set of prints. Prints one through one hundred could be one tier. The next tier could be the next hundred and so on. The selling prices increases as the edition sells out. This is yet another accepted marketing practice. I don’t necessarily agree with that strategy, yet it is the standard for limited edition print pricing. The tiered approach will almost always have the last several images held back at an unspecified dollar amount. This is useful for the artist that wants to price the last few prints as high as the amount required for the down payment on house. Again this is a practice that I see as unfair and a slap in the face to the buyer.

Now we get to my personal favorite misconception. The misconception that a digital print will gain value when limited to the number of prints offered. Sorry ladies and gentlemen. This is not the case. A digital print will never increase in actual monetary value. Allow me to further explain. The artists that sells limited edition inkjet prints will mislead customers into believing that an inkjet print will gain in value. This is not true. The handmade print is the only type of print that will in fact increase in value. The tiered pricing structure for digital prints is what we call an artificially inflated value. The value of the inkjet print is based upon the initial selling price of the first print in the edition. That does not mean the actual value will increase. This might sound crazy, yet a machine-made print will never gain in value. All of this is academic if you see a print you like that is in the last tier of an edition.

This is where we part the sea of artistic politics. There are those that will disagree. Some might even get angry. That is perfectly understandable. The photographer selling the limited editions will inevitably use the artificially inflated value as a selling point. Do yourself a favor and don’t buy into it. A digital inkjet print is worth today what was paid for the print 10 years ago. Just because a buyer paid more for a print in the higher tier, does not make the print any more valuable than a print in the first tier. This is simply the economics of art. One must factor in the inevitable rule of inflation and reputation of the artist. In time the pricing structure will increase at a steady rate. Anything other than a gradual 10 -15% every three or four years is suspect. The rules for the historic photographic processes are much different.

Consider the platinum palladium limited edition. Each one of the prints is handmade and will have subtle differences that will make every print unique. I use the term handmade in every sense of the meaning. So often I hear inkjet prints as being handmade. Perhaps one must factor in the index finger of the right hand used to press the print button as handmade. Personally I find the term handmade offensive when used to describe an inkjet print. I for one could care less if the artist or his assistant printed the image. The real work is done prior to the stress of printing the image to the printer. The term handmade has been twisted so far that it is high time to return to the traditional meaning of the word.

Now you know why I refuse to edition my Inkjet prints. The open edition approach allows me to keep the price of my inkjet prints affordable to the art lover. Perhaps I just made a convincing argument in regards to the pricing structure of inkjet prints. Maybe the educated art buyer will stop buying into the marketing hype. In the end, all I can do is state the facts and let common sense prevail.