What’s Important – the Image or the Artifact?

An acquaintance of mine recently declared that he was going to hang no more prints in his home; from now on it was to be only originals. To me this means that there will be no more lithographically printed images on his walls, but only things created by the artist. It also means that those pieces hanging on his wall will be one-of-a-kind. But I wondered what this person would do with regard to photographs. What constitutes an “original” in photography is open to discussion, if not debate.

Photographic prints do not have the uniqueness that hand-drawn or painted pieces have. This is particularly true of digital prints, which can be reproduced infinitely, with each print being just as good as the previous one. What then constitutes an “original” photograph?

There are several responses to this question. The first is to issue prints in limited editions, a procedure used by many fine art photographers. The number of prints in an issue is fixed, but different series of different sizes or formats may exist. Generally the purchasing public relies on the photographer’s integrity to guarantee the originality and scarcity of limited edition prints they might buy. Some US states have laws that regulate photography editions; some do not.

This procedure is not without its difficulties. One of these came to the fore recently when a collector sued renowned photographer William Eggleston after Eggleston created a new issue of images that had previously been printed and sold as limited editions. The new images were of a different size and printed using a different process. At stake, according to the lawsuit, is the value of the original collector’s images; he maintains that the new issue has devalued the prints he owns.

The problem gets a little cloudier with open editions, that is, editions that are essentially infinite. Then whether it is an original or not usually depends on some rules of thumb, such as whether the photographer actually printed or directed the printing of the image, or whether was it done by someone else or after the fact.

The second response to the problem of original photography is to somehow create a unique artifact. There have been two articles in photography trade magazines in recent months on making encaustic photographs, one about a photographer who uses the process and one how-to article. Even though each piece is based on the same digital print, each is unique because of the manual encaustic process used. Thus each is an original, and some would say much more than a photograph.

There are other solutions. Some photographers, like Gregori Maiofis, make prints using archaic and complicated chemical process which induce small differences print to print. This guarantees that each image in a limited edition is original.

Also recently I had a conversation with an instructor of print-making who had spent an entire semester working with a graduate student developing a process by which photographs could be used as a basis for creating plates for intaglio printing. Since each print is hand pulled and because of the unavoidable variations in every printing, each image would essentially be an original.

On the other end of the spectrum are photographers who celebrate the infinite reproducibility of the digital image.  Counted among the reproducibility advocates are those who appreciate the giclée, a reproduction of a hand-drawn or painted image. Digital files are made from the originals; then reproductions are produced using a giclée printer. Some are accepting of giclées because of their quality; some consider them mere copies. The advantage of any digital reproduction is, of course, that the image can be duplicated in an affordable format.

Money and quality are always issues, but the question really is are you interested in image only, regardless of how it was created, or do you want to own an “original” artifact?

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Date: Monday, 23. April 2012 1:28
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Originality, Photography

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