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Author Topic: The Numbering Affair  (Read 12834 times)
LesPalenik
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« on: February 28, 2011, 07:03:09 AM »
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Alan raised an interesting question and cleared many misconceptions on the subject. Although this is a highly contraversial topic, I wholeheartedly agree with his conclusions. He certainly has the numbers and expertise to back it up.

Limited editions in the photography print market do not serve the buyer, and definitely not the artist. I remember the days when some bestselling photographers published limited editions in 5,000 or 25,000 print runs, and some of them even in multiple sizes. The large print runs were produced lithographically and small editions by an enlarger in photo labs. It was a very different market then. In the new print-on-demand world, and many thousands of artists selling their prints, the sales numbers will be primarily determined by a sound marketing approach, the image impact and by the printing/paper/canvass quality. Not by numbers on the back. And it's really hard to predict which pieces will sell and which not.

In my experience, I never got the impression that many buyers care or notice the numbers on the print.  Usually, it's more about the ego of the budding photographer and misguided marketing strategy.
Just keep it simple for yourself and prospective customers, and keep your options open.

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Eric Kellerman
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« Reply #1 on: February 28, 2011, 09:18:49 AM »
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Alain Briot's article is stimulating, and his point about the relationship between limited editions and developing printing technology is well taken. I have a slightly different view of the usefulness of limited editions (as distinct from merely numbered ones). Opting for a limited print run is not so much an attempt on the part of the artist to give the print spurious value but rather a strategy to guarantee a reasonable minimum sales price. In my limited experience, galleries and their clients like to know that copies of their photos are not being cranked out on demand indefinitely. They require at least a modicum of exclusivity and it's that that they're partly paying for.
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ednazarko
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« Reply #2 on: February 28, 2011, 10:37:04 AM »
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Alain's mention that the drivers of the limited edition phenomena are not necessarily the photographers themselves is very true in my experience.  Gallery owners and shows have been the driver for my getting into numbered editions, albeit with very little enthusiasm.  I got the "we only will handle limited edition prints" rap from several places I wanted to get my work into.  The gallery owners' logic was, their wall space is limited and costly, and they want each square inch to produce the maximum return.  Limited edition prints give them a justification for a big markup over non-limited or numbered editions.  More than one referred to non-limited prints as "posters".  Still, that's better for photographers than those gallery owners who, upon doing the return on square inches math decide to only carry paintings and non-photographic prints, which support a much higher price.

Admittedly, all this is moot if you're A Name in photography.  I'm not.  There are some places that my decision to do editions of 25 - trying to be realistic about how many of a print I might ever sell - still didn't meet the acceptance standard.  Many galleries in NY want editions of 6 or 10, no more. (Those also tend to be "wet photographic process only" places, besides.)  I feel like editions of 25 are realistic for my work - I sold out several images back when I was devoting a lot of time to cultivating the gallery relationships, which kind of reinforced that for me.  Did that make me feel those were my best images?  Nope. But it did make me feel like I had to lock down my process for printing images - no improvements as I learn new skills or get better printers allowed, because that would, to me, make the notion of an edition a complete fiction.  (Everybody draws their own lines in the sand - you may not agree with me on that.)

Having numbered editions impacted pricing of my non-numbered edition work, however.  I tried for a bit to "have it both ways" and sell numbered but non-limited prints in places where I could.  I got pretty direct feedback from a number of buyers who'd seen my work in more than one location that my non-limited edition work was not as good as the limited... funny since I've sold more than 25 of a lot more prints than I sold out of in the limited editions.  It raised an unpleasant issue of inconsistency in pricing, though, and I'm a seller - I have to entice and please buyers.

My day job got heavy for awhile and I'd cut back on cultivating galleries, and have been out of the market altogether for awhile.  I'm about to get back focused on printing and selling again, and Alain's writings have given me food for thought.  I've read other similar analyses, some recent (including one on Black Star's blog) another published as an essay a few years ago.  I'm not sure where I'm going to end up.
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John R Smith
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« Reply #3 on: February 28, 2011, 12:19:06 PM »
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The idea that I would only print, say, 25 of one of my best pictures, and then never print another copy of it, seems completely ridiculous to me. How would I guarantee this? Destroy the negative? Delete all copies of the RAW and TIFF files (from every backup medium as well as my PC hard drive)? The whole point of photography, as opposed to painting, is that it is reproducible in quantity, just like any other sort of print making. And the whole point of being a photographer is that we grow and change, and come back to work which we may have made many years before with a new vision.

John
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« Reply #4 on: February 28, 2011, 01:07:19 PM »
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I think I read somewhere that Jeff Wall makes only one or two copies of each major print.

The whole question of limited editions or non-limited editions is a little silly for persons who are essentially unknown in the art world. The widest possible dissemination would make more sense at the beginning, and my sense of the art world is that dissemination won't be very wide anyway. Then, after one becomes somewhat known -- probably through books, rather than through galleries -- it might be more useful to start limiting the editions, to maximize return. (Even photographers like to be well paid, if that's an option.)

If I were going to try to become a known photographer, I'd forget the whole idea of trying to sell enough prints to support myself. I know enough photographers, who are really good, to know that this just doesn't work very well. Rather, I'd work very hard at a day job, while putting together the best possible portfolio on a coherent subject. I would then make a book out of it, paying for the book myself. I would then advertise the book on small (cheap) photo forums aimed at art photographers, selling at cost, and I'd also send (for free) copies to targeted museums and critics, hoping to get notices. If the photos are good enough, this could work for you.

The question then becomes, where do I get the money/time to do all of this? The answer is, work harder. Take another job. One key personal aspect of successful art photographers is that for some period of time, early in their careers, and often late in their careers, they don't have a life. People who insist on having a life are probably not going to be particularly successful in these kinds of endeavors.

JC
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fredjeang
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« Reply #5 on: February 28, 2011, 03:24:24 PM »
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I think those question are not relevant before one reach a certain recognition.
In painting, the norm is that on a serie there is an exclusivity from the gallerie (if serious). But in practise the painters are also selling at home in a discret manner.

It's true that any plastic intervention on a photograph makes it immediatly a unique peice. Alain point it right. I did that in fine arts, I was using resine on huge photo prints and colored with pigments. You could not reproduce that twice. The photographs where suddenly doubled, tripled, the price on the market just because of that. (on that times, photography was very little considered yet, they almost fire me in fine arts because I was too much photographic orientated; a peice from a world wide master was affordable, unthinkable for a painting from a such a master, now it's finally accepted as a major art in the vendors sphere)

The format, size matters a lot too.

Then, think that what has a lot of value, probably more than the numbers, is the process. More the process uses complicated tech, heavy structures or whatever that can not be acheived by snappers, it will have a strong value on the marketplace.

 
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BFoto
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« Reply #6 on: February 28, 2011, 04:13:58 PM »
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A great example of clever marketing is Peter Lik.

Would you pay a million for this image?

http://www.petapixel.com/2011/01/13/australian-landscape-photographer-peter-lik-sells-photo-for-1-million/

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wolfnowl
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« Reply #7 on: February 28, 2011, 04:37:44 PM »
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Great article, Alain.  The same issue crops up of course with 'limited edition' art prints.  While one may have originated from a single film or digital image and the other from a painting, the idea is that the lithograph, giclee, etc. can be 'mass produced' and the artist (for whatever reason) choose not to do so.  Never really thought of it as a 'marketing ploy' but it is.  Having said that, I still remember, back a few years ago, seeing a 'limited edition' print from a famous artist with an edition of 26,000.  What's limited about that?

Mike.
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« Reply #8 on: February 28, 2011, 07:46:15 PM »
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Marketing plays a much more important role in an artist's career than many would like to believe, at least since after WW2.  I don't know of a successful artist past that time who became successful and wasn't a master marketer.  As you go up the list of successful artists, you find that a higher and higher level of marketing skills accompanies their success.

That being said one doesn't have to number to be successful. It's just one choice amongst many, and definitely not the most important one.
« Last Edit: February 28, 2011, 07:47:52 PM by alainbriot » Logged

Alain Briot
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« Reply #9 on: February 28, 2011, 10:13:16 PM »
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I understand that "one of America's best selling fine art landscape photographers" is a comment from Michael, not from Alain, but I would be interested to know what criteria were used to justify it (and therefore lend credibility to Alain's opinion about numbering). Because when I look at the photographers in the same nature/scenic space whom I think are the most demonstrably successful at selling prints, such Peter Lik (of course), Tom Mangelsen, Ken Duncan, Rodney Lough, they *all* limit their editions.

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Rob C
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« Reply #10 on: March 01, 2011, 03:35:43 AM »
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I'm still trying to figure out why one should extend one's arms out, with the palms facing each other. I'd hoped for a dénouement but it failed to arrive.

Aaah... I shall never understand marketing.

Rob C
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Mark D Segal
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« Reply #11 on: March 01, 2011, 07:38:28 AM »
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Marketing plays a much more important role in an artist's career than many would like to believe, at least since after WW2.  I don't know of a successful artist past that time who became successful and wasn't a master marketer.  As you go up the list of successful artists, you find that a higher and higher level of marketing skills accompanies their success.

That being said one doesn't have to number to be successful. It's just one choice amongst many, and definitely not the most important one.

Alain, the question I think isn't whether numbering is or is not "the most important" factor in successful marketing. I prefer to look at this challenge as being a combination of necessary and sufficient conditions. For example, first you need a product that people are willing to buy. Then a whole bunch of other stuff comes in to complete the "marketing package". Seen from the mind of a professional economist who also happens to be a photographer, a collector of fine books, etc., I look upon this issue with all the professional deformities of my background - why I put it on the table here.

Looking at what drives economic behaviour, including consumption of almost anything, it boils down to base human instincts, and that is what marketing leverages. Limiting editions creates scarcity - that's the purpose, because scarcity is a condition which ignites two base human instincts: (i) on the buyer side, people like to own things that are somehow unique and very few other people have (yes, completely irrational, but whoever said humans are completely rational), and (ii) on the seller side, having invested the time and money to create a marketable product, sellers want high and rapid payback; remember, a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow and a dollar five years from now. They generate this rush to spend by inciting fear of unavailability and competition for acquisition amongst potential purchasers. That's also why the galleries like this; indeed insist upon it, because they know how important it is to cater to these base human instincts for turning a dollar and staying in business.

In these conditions, limited editions will remain part of the marketing scene for good reasons. Nor am I convinced that it's a potential hinderence to the photographer going forward. I think in a high percentage of cases, photographers and their public keep moving forward - new editions, new series, change of tastes and artistic interests - not too often one would miss a lot not being able to resell the same image reworked ten years from now, unless for special reasons of historical or archival interest. I think this is especially the case these days, when digital reproduction technology has pretty much matured, and quality improvement will be very slow and incremental, rather than path-breaking to any obvious extent.
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Mark D Segal (formerly MarkDS)
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« Reply #12 on: March 01, 2011, 11:31:49 AM »
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Hi Mark,

I agree with what you say.  I also think you'll enjoy reading my upcoming book on marketing Smiley.  By the way we just finished the layout and we are completing the final editing.

Regarding numbering, like in many aspects of life, doing what the majority does rarely brings success.  Look at home mortgages.  I never had a mortgage (but own several houses outright) and was told I was 'anti-American' because I refuse to get in debt to buy things (I pay cash, I'd rather get the interest than pay it). Now that the bottom fell out people tell me I was smart to do so ... There's many ways of being successful.  

The same applies to numbering vs not numbering. There's an audience who wants numbered prints and are willing to pay higher prices for it. And there's an audience who considers numbering a scheme and are willing to pay higher prices for non-numbered fine art prints.  If you do a survey of fine art photographers, dead and alive, you'll find out that there are some who fall into both categories.  You'll also find out that at the very top of the scale, not just of income but of collectability, reputation, credibility and overall artistic value, are photographers who do not, or did not, number.
« Last Edit: March 01, 2011, 11:33:51 AM by alainbriot » Logged

Alain Briot
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« Reply #13 on: March 01, 2011, 11:51:57 AM »
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Alain, yes I think all that is factually correct. I'm only explaining why I think numbering, or some such "scheme" as you aptly put it, to induce scarcity, is here to stay. And coming from an obviously successful practitioner of effective marketing, I have no doubt your forthcoming book will be of great interest. :-)

Mortgages of course is a whole other talk-show. As an example of what can be better or worse at different times, it's an interesting proposition. The propensity to incur personal debt on this continent is quite striking compared to most parts of the world. Here again, base instincts at work: eat your cake and have it. What could be better? But life is so full of "what ifs", isn't it. Suppose you had borrowed some of the capital for your houses at an interest rate well below what you could have earned investing the freed-up cash in higher-earning enterprises? Arguably, you would have emerged even better off, regardless of the systemic defects which underlay this crisis! Then again, you could have lost all the money you invested and still been in debt. Consequences are a function of risks and probabilities. I too come from the school of "the less debt the better", so who am I to talk. Cheers, Mark
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Mark D Segal (formerly MarkDS)
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« Reply #14 on: March 01, 2011, 12:01:16 PM »
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Hi Mark,

Yes, there's different ways any financial decision can go, and certainly, like you, I am quite conservative when it comes to debt.  However, another factor is that I am in a profession ('artist' for lack of a better word) in which income fluctuates greatly.  And in this type of situation, getting in debt can spell very serious financial trouble.  So one of the decisions I made very early on was to structure my financial life so as to minimize my financial exposure.  Of course I could not predict the recession but regardless it is the approach I recommend to artists when it come to financial planning.
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Alain Briot
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« Reply #15 on: March 01, 2011, 12:26:26 PM »
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 You'll also find out that at the very top of the scale, not just of income but of collectability, reputation, credibility and overall artistic value, are photographers who do not, or did not, number.

While the statement is correct (technically it just takes two photographers for it to be true)  it misses the fact that the vast majority of work currently found in high-end galleries is in limited editions. Don't just take my word for it. Look at http://dlkcollection.blogspot.com/ who doesn't hide anything about the monetary aspects (prices, edition numbers, etc...). Their surveys are limited to NYC, but does anyone doubt that's NYC is the center of the photography world at the top ?
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Mark D Segal
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« Reply #16 on: March 01, 2011, 12:36:45 PM »
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Hi Mark,

Yes, there's different ways any financial decision can go, and certainly, like you, I am quite conservative when it comes to debt.  However, another factor is that I am in a profession ('artist' for lack of a better word) in which income fluctuates greatly.  And in this type of situation, getting in debt can spell very serious financial trouble.  So one of the decisions I made very early on was to structure my financial life so as to minimize my financial exposure.  Of course I could not predict the recession but regardless it is the approach I recommend to artists when it come to financial planning.

Very sensible.
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Mark D Segal (formerly MarkDS)
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« Reply #17 on: March 01, 2011, 12:43:31 PM »
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I see three main factors in the decision for limiting editions: marketing, logistical, and financial. The fact that one can produce practically unlimited number of identical prints with today's technology is irrelevant: limiting editions is an accepted practice, and even desired or required in some circles as pointed out in the article.

Because when I look at the photographers in the same nature/scenic space whom I think are the most demonstrably successful at selling prints, such Peter Lik (of course), Tom Mangelsen, Ken Duncan, Rodney Lough, they *all* limit their editions.

Although it's hard to say which photographers truly are financially successful since anyone can make a very professional-looking website for a modest investment, majority of the ones that are most well-known outside of photographer-circles do indeed limit and number their editions.

Since Alain claims that it is mostly a marketing decision - and I agree - it would follow that limiting editions is a prudent marketing decision given the evidence. I'm sure it's not the most important one, but there seems to be strong correlation with limiting editions and superstar success.

Logistically John Camp's view makes most sense: sell all you can when you have fewer customers, and limit editions when you would need to hire (too many) assistants to serve the needs of a growing clientele and/or would need to cheapen quality.

I wouldn't know how well printing volume scales, but my understanding from reading several of Alain's articles and elsewhere it's clear that keeping top notch quality in printing, matting, packing and mailing can become a full-time job very quickly. In these cases artificially limiting editions makes perfect sense from the logistical point-of-view alone. Tiered pricing as proposed by Alain could also be a solution.

Financially limiting editions is for those who have a small market segment or niche. If you have only a limited number of buyers, you have to make your margins from fewer units. Artificial scarcity allows one to ask for higher prices. I'm sure that fine art buying customers are relatively affluent, so they can also afford to pay higher prices - so asking for "too little" money from them would leave money on the table. And limited editions themselves as a marketing tool can attract such a crowd.

For those who sell whatever is in vogue and a much larger and/or unsophisticated market (saccharine HDR, kittens in ballerina dresses and pugs playing cards, etc.), the decision to limit or not limit editions is probably more about marketing and logistical points discussed above.

Finally, limiting editions doesn't make sense for the star(t/v)ing artist. For the vast majority of artists obscurity is the greatest threat, especially in these days of commodized photography and low barriers to entry to even high-quality output. Of course, and as Alain argued, one can create limited editions so large that they will never be met.
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Slobodan Blagojevic
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« Reply #18 on: March 01, 2011, 12:49:33 PM »
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...saccharine HDR...

Love it! The term, that is.
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Slobodan

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« Reply #19 on: March 01, 2011, 01:04:51 PM »
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Although it's hard to say which photographers truly are financially successful since anyone can make a very professional-looking website for a modest investment,

That's why I gave the example of photographers who have multiple retail galleries. A gallery in a Las Vegas major casino is not a modest investment...
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