What The Numbers Mean
Probably the only reason we number our prints is that some art festivals require it, based on the questionable belief that numbers add value by assuring the buyer that we are not flooding the market with that particular image and thus adversely affecting the buyer’s resale value. Unfortunately, there are no standards (that I have found) on what the numbers represent. Print numbers are usually expressed as a fraction, with the first number (the numerator, for those more mathematically inclined) indicating how many prints we have made so far and the second number (the denominator) representing a commitment to the maximum number of those prints that will ever be made. I believe that for most photographers, citing historical reasons that no longer apply, the number pair only refers to prints of a particular image of a particular size, meaning that a number of 13/200 on a 12″ by 18″ print of a particular lighthouse picture means that you are looking at the 13th 12 x 18″ print made of that picture. The photographer may also have another 95 (of say 100) 16 x 24″ prints of the same image. And after s/he sells just five more of those 16 x 24″ prints to reach the maximum promised, s/he may either start printing a slightly different size (maybe 18 x 27″) or make just enough changes to the image in post-processing to start the numbering all over again. To further game the system, some photographers also add a few artist proofs to the collection, while others have been known to hold back the first block of say ten numbers to sell at a theoretically higher price after they’ve hit their agreed print limit.
Furthermore, in the old days, it was more practical to print in batches, so the denominator represented an actual number of prints on hand with the understanding that another batch couldn’t be made without great effort. Today prints can be made individually as needed, so the denominator is only a promise by the photographer to show some restraint. Theoretically the smaller the denominator, the greater the value of the print, which means that the denominator has no other function than as a marketing ploy. Based on that theory, there should be an ideal number of prints for each image to maximize the artist’s profits from the picture. Unfortunately, there is no practical way for the starving artist to know what that ideal number is. For some of them, this is like a game of blackjack, where it is important to guess as low as possible without going below the number of prints you are actually likely to sell (whatever that number might be).
How We’ve Done It
“In the beginning”, a few years B.C. (before canvas), we printed on an assortment of fine art and photo papers. When we were required to add numbers, we decided that we would have just one numbering system for each image, regardless of size. We set the maximum at 300 prints, and retroactively reserved numbers for everything we had already sold. Although the note cards that Nancy makes by hand with a 3½ x 5″ image on the front are the same quality as the rest of our work, they were not included in the numbering system. When we started printing on canvas, we felt that it was different enough to justify its own number system. When some festivals required a denominator of 250 or less, we acquiesced.
The New Rule
We are now simplifying. We will merge the two number systems and will print no more than 250 copies of any image in any size* on any medium. This means that for a particular image if we’ve printed 12 on paper and 8 on canvas, our next print on either medium will be 21/250. If or when we start offering acrylic or metal prints, they will still be part of the same numbering system. How we handle the numbers that have already been issued is still under consideration.
* Note cards are still excluded. In fact, Nancy doesn’t generally sign or number anything smaller than about 11″ (although we still need to formalize that number).