August 23, 2004
I'm a big fan of digital photography and digital printing — if that's the medium the artist chooses to express his or her vision. But when I noticed that digital copies of some of Walker Evans' most famous images are being offered for sale at around $1,500, it makes me question the value of such a thing. Here's one of five images being offered as a "limited edition" of 300 each by Martson Hill Editions
i'm not quite sure what you are asking. so i will just rant away:
the artworld is a market. if it can bear 300 digital portfolios of 5
walker evans prints then where is the trouble? -- all that stuff:
authenticity, editions, provenance - and by extension: theory,
zeitgeist, master, criticism, history - are just facets of the market.
everyone - artists, curators, gallerists, critics, auctioneers,
collectors, etc. - is trying to cash in on what they got, push their
guy to a higher price.
you can couch all this in nice terms like "providing a product" or
whatever other business lingo you got. and i don't mean to make it
sound so negative and cynical. i only mean to point out this is how it
works. at the end of the day it's money that makes all the art you
know and love go round and round.
but maybe you are wondering about some other notion... but that too is
a big fat can of worms -- vintage, original, artistic intent. this too
is a discourse you can track down by asking who benefits by speaking
in those terms. one aspect of photography that makes it quite
different from other, particularly older media, is reproducability.
it's always been trouble figuring out just how many is the right true
exact good number of prints to circulate in the world. rare is a great
thing - unless it's you who ain't got it. allowing the have nots to
splurge on some digital prints makes money for the producer and the
family without actually harming the value of the already circlating
gelatin silver prints. its a win-win situation as they say.
the art world is heating up again. there are a lot of young investors
and business folks cashing in big paychecks and they are having a fine
time buying up art. and they don't like the old stuff - it's all been
bought, and what little is left is too expensive and goes to museums.
plus bonnard is boring - these are all mtv kids. they like the
contemporary stuff, and they are driving prices way up. and for those
players whose paycheck isn't all that, well photography is still cool
and quite often a whole integer cheaper. those youngins are buying up
everything in sight.
$1,500 is cheap. what is that, $300 a print?
okay. i try a non-cynical reply:
it's quite common for an artist, as they get more famous and sought
after in their later years, to reproduce older work in a new format.
in photography this is as simple as just printing more prints. but
most often takes the form of some sort of portfolio collection.
typically this portfolio collection has something special going for
it, like platinum prints or some fine photo-gravures or includes a rare
print or something like that. in this case the evans family (or
whomever is in charge of his estate) has made the decision that evan's
artistic legacy is best served by editioning a new portfolio, and in
a new media. walker evans was and still is bleeding edge.
but what is interesting about this portfolio is the sense that
the digital print is just not the same or higher quality than the
prints already in circulation, most of which were likely printed by
evans or his assistants. it's a dicey move, and as you say possibly
but this will change... i think what we are seeing a lot these days
are specialty digital printers who make very high quality prints, much
like there are already engravers and the like - craftsmen and
publishers offering editioned imagery for the low end of the
Yes, of course you are right, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness in both of your replies. I was, first of all, under the misunderstanding that EACH PRINT would cost $1,500, rather than a boxed portfolio of 5 prints for $1,500. So, that does seem much more reasonable. And secondly, even though I tend to prefer prints that are made by (or approved by) the photographer, I do take great pleasure in owning photographic prints made recently from original negatives by Dorothea Lange and Berenice Abbott, which are available for less than $200 each from the New York Times. Maybe I'm just one of those curmudgeons who wishes that the art world wouldn't drive up the prices of photos I 'd love to have but can't afford.
Thanks again for your comments.