“Fine art prints created by the artist, or the artist’s collaborator, are important because they best represent the artist’s vision” – Mac Holbert
Defining an original painting is pretty straight forward. The artist painted it and it is one of a kind – the strokes of oil and the color mixtures are obvious and there is only one — it can’t be duplicated. There might be prints of the painting, but the original is an original.
Limited Edition Photographs as Originals: But what is an original photograph when a photograph can be printed numerous times? That’s why many photographers limit the number of prints they make and create what is known as a “Limited Edition.” Limited edition prints are the most valued type of fine art photography by virtue of the limited supply of the prints, and their direct “connection” to the photographer who made the image and oversaw or made the prints themselves. With each limited edition there are usually a couple of “artist’s proofs.”
The Story of Ansel Adams’ Moonrise Image: Of course, for every rule there are aberrations, and because of the evolution of photography in the art market, some early situations don’t quite live up to the general rules noted above. For example, let’s look at Ansel Adams’ image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. It is perhaps the best known and most sought after photographic print in the field of fine-art photography. On October 6, Christie’s photographs auction saw a landmark result for Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, which exceeded its high estimate of $700,000 to sell for $930,000, the highest price ever seen at auction for this iconic image.
The story of its making is legendary including how Adams had a difficult and challenging day photographing in the Chama Valley, north of Santa Fe, and had not achieved any images he was satisfied with. Driving back to Santa Fe, he saw this town where the low sun was trailing the edge of the clouds in the west, and shadow would soon dim the white crosses. Struggling to load up his equipment, unable to find his light meter, Adams made a calculation in his head and hoped for the best, with a plan to take a second shot at a different exposure. The sun set and the second shot could not be made. You can read more about the chaos and chances taken at the Ansel Adams gallery website or check out this video. There is also a good story here.
What is interesting about the Moonrise print is that our understanding about “the original” and the understanding of limited editions falls apart. First, while Adams had a weak negative to work with, he knew he had a great image. He just could not quite get the prints where he wanted them to be. Over the next forty years, Adams continued to tinker with the prints in the darkroom, including experimenting with different chemicals and papers as darkroom technology advanced.
As you can see, different eras of the print look very different. Adams noted that it was not until the 1970s that he achieved the print equal to his original visualization of the scene. This begs a question – what is the original? The earliest prints or the later versions of the print that Adam’s was more satisfied with? The Ansel Adams Gallery defines original as “Each original photograph we sell has a Certificate of Authenticity that states it has been authenticated by the Adams family as composed, exposed and printed by the artist himself. “
Secondly, Moonrise breaks the rules on “Limited Editions.” All versions printed by him can be authenticated. However, between the 1940s and the 1970s he produced prints whenever an order for a copy of the image came in. The most common size was 16’’ x20’’. There is a rarer group of prints at the mural size (30’’ x 40”). Adams kept no records, so no one really knows how many copies of this image were made. It is estimated that are anywhere between 900 and 1,300 prints made over 40 years – perhaps worth a cumulative $25 million. Ansel Adams said, with all that tinkering and various alterations, “it is safe to say that no two prints are precisely the same.”
In that respect, perhaps they are all originals.
To convey in the print the feeling you experienced when you exposed your film – to walk out of the darkroom and say: ‘This is it, the equivalent of what I saw and felt!’. That’s what it’s all about – John Sexton
To read more thoughts about photography, consider signing up for the monthly newsletter