Unscarce Rarity.

This essay was produced for my Mechanical Image art history & theory elective this year, and is more or less the manifesto by which I produced and sell my Nervous Spaces prints. The essay got a distinction result, so I’m reasonably happy with it. Oh, it was also a topic I created, rather than one the lecturer set, and is heavily pruned to a word limit.

Essay Question: Does the digital process affect the concept of scarcity underying the sale of photographic prints, and how can photographers establish a “valid” scarcity in the era of digital printing?


The history of photography has been one of struggle for recognition as a valid equal of the traditional visual arts. Alfred Steiglitz’s strategy of presenting exhibitions at Gallery 291 alternating between photographs and traditional fine art media 1, such as drawing and painting, combined with his curatorial approach to the pieces appearing in Camera Notes & Camera Work, did much to normalise the medium in the minds of the arts patronising community. Through it’s ability to present “truth”, both real and fictitious, it is arguable that photography became the dominant artform, in terms of cultural influence, of the 20th century. Could even the greatest works of Rothko, Pollock or Warhol compete for universal emotional impact and social effect, with Nick Ut’s Vietnam war photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running down the road with her skin burned off, or Eddie Adams’ image General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon 2. Having won its equality, photography in the modern digital era seems to be rejecting some of the primary characteristics of painting, sculpture and printmaking that elevate them as Art, as distinct from decorative or utilitarian, objects.

From the outset, I should be clear that my interest here covers a very specific form of photography – namely, “fine art” works that are printed digitally as multiple, but limited, editions. While this may seem a narrow focus, I believe that it is the closest relative to the making and sale model of the other reproduction-centric arts. Unless a counter-culture within photography returns ascendancy to analogue shooting and printing techniques, I think it is a focus on that which will come to represent the bulk of fine art photography.

Look at any photographic exhibition today, and you will almost certainly see prints listed with reference to their scarcity. Similarly, printmaking and cast sculpture are made, sold and collected on this basis. It is implicit in the sale of such work that once the total number in the series are sold, no more will be made, and a secondary, speculator market can develop. Given the historical desire of the photographic community to have their work considered as much Art as painting, sculpture etc, it is worth considering the making process which leads to scarcity of the actual purchasable work, within the three most commonly considered reproduction-centric artforms.

Reproduction in Sculpture

In the bronzecasting process, one works on a clay or wax original. From this, a multiple use negative mould is taken. Wax positive reproductions are cast from that, and a single use negative mould then built up around each wax positive. The wax is burned out of the mould and bronze is poured in. Once cooled, the mould is smashed, chipped and ground off, to produce the rough bronze sculpture. Afterwards, the casting infrastructure of spouts and air-escape sprews are cut off, welding repairs done, and the surface is chased to clean up casting imperfections and bring out the desired surface texture. The final step is chemical pattenation to colour the surface. This is all highly labour intensive and time consuming. At every step, differences from the artist’s original work inevitably creep in. Every piece in a series of sculptures cast in this fashion is a distinct and unique object. The process itself is inherently imperfect and there are many stages at which a failure of technique carries the risk of catastrophic damage, and ruination of the piece.

Reproduction in Printmaking

Printmaking’s multitude of image creation techniques, be it intaglio, block or lithographic processes, all resolve to the creation of an original printing plate by either drawing, carving, masking or etching (including photo-exposure), which is then inked by hand for each print. The work is then held against the plate, most commonly in a mechanical press, transferring and reversing the image. Screenprinted images rely on a series of masks rather than plates and work without a press, but aside from that, the same principles apply. If multiple colours are used, then registration technique has to be perfected to ensure each colour printing lines up correctly on the individual work. Just as in bronzecasting, every single print is a unique object. The process has a chain of events that must be performed manually, and at each, basic human fallibility ensures there will be variation, and the risk of catastrophic failure. There is also a tradition of permenantly damaging the printing plates after the run is complete, and then printing from the plate as proof that that no more can be made 3.

Reproduction in Analogue Photography

In analogue photography, a negative created by the camera must be chemically developed to make it lightfast. The stabilised negative is projected through an enlarger onto chemically treated photosensitive paper. Areas of the negative allowing light through, chemically alter the paper progressively in response to the intensity of light, and the duration of exposure. The exposed paper is then chemically treated, colouring the exposed areas, halting development, and fixing the image to prevent further darkening upon exposure to light. All of these processes are highly dependant on time, the chemical composition of developing fluids (which changes as they are used), and the manufacturing and storage tolerances of paper and film. It is arguable that with this combination of variables not even the most careful timekeeping can ensure that any two prints made by human hands will be identical. Indeed, the individuality and uniqueness of prints as artefacts was valued by analogue photographers in recent history 4. As with the previously mentioned analogue artforms, it is intensely hands-on and time consuming. Furthermore, any type of editing or modification happens invisibly, the results unseen until the print is developed, and risks destroying the work that has gone before.

The Digital Frontier

All of the previous artforms share two main commonalities – they are hands-on processes, which are destructively edited. To make any change in the work, one must physically alter it in a way that cannot be undone. Certainly, one can attempt to repair a change that was undesirable, welding over an excessively ground part of a bronze sculpture for example, but that change cannot be unmade. The digital realm gives us undo.

Undo is a concept so fundamental, that its availability separates any work produced, from the rest of its medium as completely as the discovery of a new primary colour would separate pre and post discovery painting. Undo, and the related ability to save versions and duplicates, would literally be a godlike characteristic for an analogue artist. It would require being able travel backwards in time independent of one’s environment and to duplicate matter and objects at will. The power it grants, the freedom from risk, should these not have corresponding responsibilities? Should there not be a cost associated with making risk-free art? Additionally, to make work with digital tools, effectively only requires intellectual mastery of the functions of the tool. Analogue processes require total mastery of one’s body and muscles in order to use those tools on the work. It is the difference between a composer who may have mastery of the structure and design of music and a musician who can make that music actually happen without error. Analogue art requires the ability to work in real time.

Aside from being risk-free, the output from digital printing is hands-off. Fine art photography is increasingly printed on large format archival inkjet printers. Once the print button has been pressed, the artist’s need to be involved in the physical making of the artefact ceases. These printing machines, and the editing software used to non-destructively modify the image, are designed for one purpose – to reliably and repeatably create an image again and again as cheaply as possible with zero variation.

Why do many printmakers consider that manual printing with a press is Art, whereas prints made by a digital printer from a digital file are lesser objects? Why do we value sculptures cast by hand over those produced in a factory? It is not just the easy response of prejudice against the new. The answer lies in the hand of the artist. Our emotional connection with an artwork comes from an understanding that we are not only buying something that an artist has fashioned with their own hands, but that in doing so, they were unable to produce anything else during that time. We buy not only the artefact, but also the hours of the artist’s life used up in its creation.

In digital printing, there is no substantive difference for the artist between making ten, one hundred, or one hundred thousand of a work. So long as the ink and paper levels are maintained, the printer will keep churning out identical, risk-free replicas, even pausing to clean and recalibrate, while the artist is free to do anything else. Furthermore, as long as someone else has the same paper, printer, and file, the copies of the print they produce will be indistinguishable from the copy an artist produces (or orders to be produced), and they will have no less of the artist’s hand in their creation. The digitally printed photograph has more in common, both in editing and fabrication, with a mass-printed page in a disposable magazine, than it does with darkroom photography.

Digital printing has eliminated natural scarcity from the equation by effectively creating a potential infinite supply of prints that are in evey physical respect, identical. Truly valuable scarce objects almost always result from one of two scenarios. Either the resources of which they are produced are rare in absolute terms, or they were made in such overwhelming numbers, by virtue of being emblematic of their time, that noone thought to archive pristine versions for posterity.

A digitally printed photograph is made of printer ink, paper and a negligible or completely absent amount of the artist’s working life. It could be argued that the time taken shooting the picture, and editing it in post-production is amortised across every print made, but that is purely a conceptual conceit, not a physical reality. The amount of work by the artist is unchanged by the number of prints made. Therefore, unless the artist destroys all copies of the digital file, creating absolute scarcity, it is most reasonable to conclude that a digitally printed photograph is not in any way an organically or naturally rare object. In these circumstances, what possible justification can we have for claiming a photograph is a “limited edition”, other than to manufacture a tenuous scarcity?

What artist would choose for their work to be rare if it didn’t have to be? Who can honestly say that if money were not an option, they would refuse the opportunity of having their work in as many homes, galleries and museums as possible?

A Solution

How then can digitally printed photography return to being an equal of the other artforms, with scarcity that is a result of an organic process? The most obvious solution is to follow the printmaking example, and destroy the source files, the digital negatives, once a decided-upon printing limit has been reached. That would achieve absolute scarcity, but be anathema to the photographic mindset of negative archiving. Additionally, despite advances in printing technology, no large format photographic process has the sort of long-term stability of paint, ink or bronze.

In conclusion, the solution I would suggest, and which I used in my own exhibition Nervous Spaces, is to abandon “limited” editions altogether, and embrace the fundamental truth to materials nature of digital work – it is infinite. I propose that a fixed multiplier be attached to sale prices. An organic mathematical process will increase the price with each sale, dependant on the multiplier. A scarcity of fabricated examples will reflect true demand for the work, and each sale will contribute to the price inflation necessary for a collector’s market, while simultaneously rewarding buyers with value appreciation in direct proportion to how readily they buy works and support the artist.


Wikipedia article on Gallery 291

Eulogy: GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN, Eddie Adams. Time Magazine online

The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz, Weston Naef.

Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Notes, Christian A. Peterson

A Concise History of Bronzes, George Savage.

The Art of the Print, Fritz Eichenberg

A World History of Photography (Fourth Edition), Naomi Rosenblum

  1. Authoratitive list of exhibitions – Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries by Sarah Greenough, pp. 543-547. Citation source Wikipedia.
  2. “I won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for a photograph of one man shooting another. Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN. The general killed the Viet Cong, I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?” General Loan was what you would call a real warrior, admired by his troops.  I’m not saying what he did was right, but you have to put yourself in his position. The photograph also doesn’t say that the general devoted much of his time trying to get hospitals built in Vietnam for war casualties. This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time. I had kept in contact with him; the last time we spoke was about six months ago, when he was very ill. I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote,  ‘I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.’ “- Eddie Adams eulogy for General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Time.com Monday, Jul. 27, 1998
  3. “Cancellation: Defacing a plate, block or stone after an edition has been printed, to make further printing impossible; also, a proof showing such defacement.” The Art of the Print, Fritz Eichenberg: Glossary p582
  4. “Around the 1960s, attitudes about printing changed” … “Print technology became valued by creative photographers less for its ability to reproduce images than as a means to produce unique objects that often depended primarily on the processes used for their aesthetic interest. This changed attitude toward mechanical and, eventually, electronic printing might also be viewed as an aspect of a new Pictorialism in that the images are meant not as utilitarian objects – that is, advertising or political posters – but primarily as unique aesthetic artifacts” A World History of Photography (Fourth Edition), Naomi Rosenblum: pp614-618