Collector’s Guide: Photo Editions Explained

 
Pieter Hugo, Naasra Yeti, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana, chromogenic print, edition four of ten, 2009.
Pieter Hugo, Naasra Yeti, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana, chromogenic print, edition 4/10, 2009. Sold February 25, 2020 in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $6,760.
 

With photography’s inherent ability to be duplicated, edition size can be a major focus and concern for collectors. While many contemporary photographers clearly edition their works, it has not always been the practice to do so. With that in mind, how can you understand what you are collecting in today’s market? Jessica Hunter, our photographs and photobooks cataloguer, takes us through some of the top questions collectors ask her about photographic editions, what an artist’s proof is, and things to consider when looking at a photograph’s edition size.

 

What is an edition size?

An edition number indicates the number of prints that will be created from the negative, and what number that print is in the series. However, images by a photographer may be printed in multiple sizes, each with a different edition size. Generally, the larger the print is, the smaller the edition size. 

 

Why isn’t my photograph from an editioned series?

 
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gestapo informer recognized by a woman she had denounced, Dessau, Germany, ferrotyped silver print, 1945, printed 1947. Sold October 17, 2019 in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $42,500.
 

A number of photographers working before the 1980s did not edition their prints. These earlier photographers printed their work on demand. Editioning only became more important with growing activity in the photography market in the 1970s and 1980s, when collectors began to question the number of prints by a photographer available, desiring a finite market for their work. In contemporary photography, editioning works has become commonplace.

 

Why are only some works by a photographer editioned?

 
Alfred Eisenstaedt, V-J Day Kiss, Times Square, New York, silver print, 1945, printed 1966-72.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, V-J Day Kiss, Times Square, New York, silver print, 1945, printed 1966-72. Sold October 17, 2019 in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $11,875.

This early work by Eisenstaedt is not editioned.
 

This is not unusual for these earlier photographers, who were printing on demand early on, whereas later, their modern prints were being created for a growing photography art market. An example of this is Alfred Eisenstaedt. Eisenstaedt’s early works, printed prior to 1980, are generally uneditioned—as was typical of the period, especially for a photographer creating photographs for publication. These uneditioned prints often have other markings such as press stamps or a signature. However, around 1980, the LIFE Picture Collection began making supervised, signed exhibition-quality Eisenstaedt prints in limited editions.

 
Alfred Eisenstaedt, Drum Major and Children, University of Michigan, silver print, edition 168 of 250, 1951, printed 1994.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, Drum Major and Children, University of Michigan, silver print, edition 168/250, 1951, printed 1994. Sold October 17, 2019 in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $6,750.

A later Eisenstaedt work with stated edition size.
 
Alfred Eisenstaedt, Drum Major and Children, University of Michigan, silver print, detail of photograph edition number, 1951, printed 1994.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, Drum Major and Children, University of Michigan, silver print, detail of edition number, 1951, printed 1994.
 

Can a photographer create more prints than the edition states?

It is not in the photographer’s interest to go beyond an edition number. While this is possible, it would create uncertainty and damage the photographer’s market. 

 

What is an artist’s proof?

 
Sandy Skoglund, Maybe Babies, dye transfer print, detail of artist proof photograph edition number, 1983.
Sandy Skoglund, Maybe Babies, dye transfer print, detail of artist proof edition number, 1983.

An artist proof from Skoglund denoted by the AP.
 

An artist proof (or A.P.) is generally a test print made by the photographer outside of the edition size. There can sometimes be multiple proof prints. A photographer can sell an A.P. once an edition sells out, but they are often reserved for the photographer’s use either through their galleries or exhibitions at institutions.

 
Sandy Skoglund, Maybe Babies, dye transfer print, AP 10/10, 1983.
Sandy Skoglund, Maybe Babies, dye transfer print, AP 10/10, 1983. Sold October 17, 2019 in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $4,500.
 

Related Reading: What is an After Print?

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