Photography is one of the forms of art that struggles with the question of value.
For the average or educated art collector it is easy to comprehend that an oil painting is a unique and valuable item. While some reproductions are commonly done, there is little chance that anyone will mistake a poster of a Picasso on your living room wall as an original. In this area there is a clear and unambiguous understanding of value. I may like the Picasso, and his work might embellish many walls of my home, but nobody would believe that I’d won the lottery or robbed a high end gallery or national museum. It is simply understood that I’ve gone to the local art shop and picked up a print.
In the realm of photography, the intrinisc value of a photographic print is harder to establish.
There are noteworthy modern photographers, such as Edward Burtynsky, who’s work is unmistakable. Should you buy one of his lovely large books, cut out the page and frame it, you can have one of his pieces. Short of that, you need to find one of the 30 or less original prints that he makes of any given image. In this manner, his output is controlled and well understood.
But, what about the photographers that you run across at a local art fair that comes to town for just a few days? How are the value of their works to be astablished? Or even in a local established gallery?
You can take the straightforward approach and simply decide the value of the image based on how much you like it. But, what happens if you buy the print for, perhaps, $400 and then discover another copy of it two weeks later for less in another location? Did you get good value?
You can survey the galleries in the area (such as many well respected ones in Toronto) and get a feel for the ‘street value’ of a photographic image. This can serve you well to at least have an idea if you are in the right ballpark, but cannot acount for the issues of the noteworthiness of the artist, such as Burtynsky mentioned earlier.
At this point, I suggest you consider the concept of limited editions. This is a fairly new aspect of photography. Limited edtions have been around in the art world since the advent of lithography, but not all photographers engage in it. The example cited of Burtynsky, limiting to 30 or so prints, establishes the rarity of the print and gives an indication that the value can be expected to be retained and may actually grow over time.
My Approach to Editions
Artist Proof – up to 3 prints of any given image that may vary widely in terms of exposure, cropping, size or tonality. These are my early works on any image that I may print for evaluation or exhibition.
Limited Edition – up to 10 prints of any given image that typically do not vary. Some exceptions may occur as individuals inquire about custom sizes, but all prints are included in the count up to 10.
Open Edition – unlimited prints that may be of any quantity, vary in size and may be freely edited or manipulated. These prints still cary the full archival characteristics of every print I do, but are priced in accessable manner and are not necessarily images that define my artistic direction. These images are not part of a limited edition series, although I occasionally do an artist proof or two before deciding to take a specific image to open edition rather than limited.
Card Edition – intended as a simple way to promote my work as a cost that anyone can have. These are simple cardstock productions, roughly 3 x 5 inches and are folded to allow someone to use it as a card for general purposes. These are cards, not prints and thus are not archival. I generally sell them at just two or three dollars.
Artist Proofs are likely to be 10 to 25% higher in price than the Limited Editions. There are exceptions to this as I occassionally print quite small proofs and make them reasonably affordable. Limited Editions will typically run between $180 and $450. Open Editions will run between $25 and $80, depending mainly on size or if any custom requests have been included.
To be fair, not all photographers agree.
Take note of this link for quite a lengthy discourse with a different view.