To Edition or Not To Edition
This whole concept of editions in photography has been bugging me for a long time. And now more than ever, considering I’ve printed close to 10,000 linear feet of photographs, illustrations, paintings and pastels for other people I feel I can finally say something about the concept of editions for photography.
First of all, lets consider exactly what a photograph or any art for that matter is fulfilling. I feel – and correct me if you think I’m wrong, as I’m sure many of you will – that art at its root is a utility. A utility like any other object in our lives – like a car, a computer or electricity. Not all utilities are objects – electricity isn’t, but that doesn’t prevent them from still being a utility in our lives – some thing we use to achieve something else.
Specifically, a photograph is something I manufacture and assemble from other things, no different than a car or any other manufactured object. As such, why am I expected to adopt this concept of editions to explain the value of my manufactured object. Apple doesn’t tell the world, hey, we’re only going to make an edition of 10 ipods or an edition of 20 iphones. They don’t even commit to making a specific number of them. They do research, estimate demand and make a decision to manufacture a certain number of them with the ability to make more if people want more of them. In the automotive industry, they show concept versions of cars they’re thinking of manufacturing and use interest in those to gauge future demand.
When would I ever be able to make a photograph, show it to the world at exhibitions as a concept and then after that – decide, based on the interest, I’m going to make 20 of these photographs possibly more depending on demand. Oh, I know, I could have an “open edition” of my work, sure. But the point is, why should I even use this idea of editions to define the value of my efforts. Guys like Ansel Adams didn’t do this. They made prints when people ordered them.
The edition concept originates with lithography, from what I understand, where a stone or plate wore out during the course of printing, becoming less sharp and softer edged. Hence a lower edition number print would be more valuable since it was sharper and cleaner than the later prints in the edition. This doesn’t translate in photography – there is nothing that wears out during the production process – sure things could get damaged or lost by accident but not worn out.
Theoretically, now more than ever, I could make unlimited numbers of exactly identical photographic prints. In reality this isn’t entirely true and is limited by changes in the formulations and availability of the papers and inks from third party manufacturers that I rely on not to mention the subtle but sometimes noticeable changes resulting from the constant updates to the software and hardware of all the equipment I use to manufacture my work and other not so obvious factors like humidity.
I remember in the 70’s when a battle was raging over whether photography was a true art form. The argument was centered around the fact that a photograph involved a mechanical component in its making and thus was completely different from other true art forms like drawing or painting. It was a graphic art and therefore not a real art.
I think its safe to say this is a bogus argument. Art is art and is not restricted by the materials or medium it is made from. Art is essentially anything that is created by us that makes us think. That’s a very broad definition I know but I think its a dumb argument anyway. Who cares – as my son would say. Its irrelevant.
We as a species make things – all manner of things. Not all of them are interesting or relevant or useful. But the ones that make us think, or see our world differently or give us pause, or inspire us to do something or entertain us or allow us to escape our daily existence – these things are useful to us beyond the utility of their function and have therefore transcended to a higher position in our lives. I argue, these things have therefore become art. Of these things, the ones that continue to do this for us over the long run become great art.
If you look carefully at this argument, it means art will be different for all of us. Sure there will be overlap between us – a commonality, but there will also be outliers. What is art to me could be junk to you. So be it. This is what makes art, as a concept so interesting and so mutable. Its why new art forms are constantly rising up out of the noise of our existence.
But this begs the question of how to valuate art. Which if you look at it is exactly the same question that applies to absolutely everything we manufacture. Value is delineated in part by production cost, demand, profit motive and likely other factors too. Applying a borrowed, hacked, imaginary limitation to photography as a means to justify it’s value is pointless and restrictive. The simple fact is – I as an artist have limited interest in manufacturing the same image for ever more. The one ESSENTIAL difference between me and Apple is this – I am ONE person. My interest and time are extremely limited, so I am not going to keep on making the same old work. Even Apple doesn’t keep making the same thing forever.
I’m beginning to think it will be more interesting for me if I let go of the edition concept and make unique pieces of work. Pieces that I have laid my hands to in some way, that haven’t just been mechanically produced but rather have been assembled from pieces by my hand with all its inherent imperfection and will thus be completely different from one another.
In part – because of this, I am considering deconstructing the light signatures images into their component visual elements, printing the elements on transparent material that I will then reconstruct as layers embedded in thick clear acrylic like a prehistoric bug embedded in amber. Aside from making each “print” unique, it will give the images a dynamic, multidimensional quality and allow your experience of them to approach the way I see them.
Wish me luck, I have no idea what I’m doing.