Tuesday, April 2, 2013

William Eggleston is off the Hook

Mississippi-based photographer William Eggleston is off the hook for creating and selling digital large-format versions of some of his iconic dye-transfer images from the 1970's and 1980's.

A New York collector, Jonathan Sobel, had sued Eggleston for making and selling the large (44x60 inches) versions of these images. Sobel, who owns over 190 prints of Eggleston's photographs, claimed that his 16x20 inch prints of these images were devalued by Eggleston's actions, which in Sobel's view, violated the terms of Eggleston's original agreement with collectors to issue these images in only a limited number of prints.

Sobel sought damages from Eggleston and his son William Eggleston III, as trustees of the Eggleston Artistic Trust, for violation of the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law (Acal), by committing "fraudulent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and promissory estoppel"

Sobel lost in federal court. The judge defined Sobel's complaint, thus: "Sobel's belief that the works were limited editions was a principal factor in his decision to purchase them... he argues that the defendants violated the Acal by holding out the limited edition works as restricted to a maximum number of multiples and subsequently creating and selling the reprints." 

The court ruled, however,  that "nothing in the statute suggests that such behaviour violates the Acal."

The key issue was a sale of Eggleston's digital prints of his images at Christie's New York in March of 2012. The sale of 36 of Eggleston's images brought in $5.9 million. The image of a tricycle, Untitled 1970 (see above), sold for $578, 000, a world auction record for a single print by Eggleston.

Read more about the dismissal of this suit HERE, from Photo District News.

Now, of course, for most of us, creating an image that would sell for nearly $600, 000 at auction is the fondest of fantasies. And, the creation of artificial scarcity through the limited-edition route -- especially for a print of a digital file that could be reprinted infinitely many times with every copy looking identical to all the others -- is far more about marketing than it is about art. 

But, still, its good to know one could make one's images, benefit from the marketing of small editions, then change the format and start the process over again.

This case brings up a whole host of questions about what constitutes the art "object," especially in a digital age, but the weather today in this part of the South is too beautiful to spend time thinking about them.


  1. Well, I must say that regardless of what the judge/law says, I think what Eggleston did was ethically wrong. My friend Gerald and I have over the years had an ongoing discussion about all things photography, and so of course the 'limited edition' subject came up many times. I think we finally arrived at a very elegant solution to this by saying that we should follow the example of the book-publishing world and make 1st, 2nd and etc. editions.
    Mike Johnston over at The Online Photographer explores the subject and comes up with the same conclusion. Brooks Jensen was probably the first one to suggest this approach.

  2. I think that Sobel is missing a major opportunity here to define his dye-transfer prints as the "real," the "original" Eggleston prints, the ones that made Eggleston's reputation as the creator of color fine art photography, and the new digital series as in some sense reproductions of them.

    That should give him the market appeal to hold up the value of his prints.

    I've heard Brooks Jensen on the matter of "limited editions" as well, and think the idea of numbering editions as well as prints within each edition makes sense.

    Eggleston was in effect declaring a new edition of his prints, whether he said so formally or not.

    He changed size AND method of production, so this guy lost his court case because Eggleston was clearly not producing new dye transfer prints from the original negatives, not extending production of the same series beyond his original limited number of prints.

    But the whole thing is complicated because the digital scanning and printing process was not even dreamed of when Eggleston made his dye-transfer prints. Technology changed, and the means of production AND the market changed along with it.

    Except, of course, the idea of limiting the size of an edition of photographic prints is itself pretty meaningless and is entirely a marketing strategy. And that was true even before the advent of digital printing.

    In the world of engravings and lithographs, one can make it meaningful because the quality of the print source can deteriorate over time. The plate or stone is often destroyed after the predetermined print run.

    But I don't know too many photographers who destroy the image source when the print run is done.