For milleniums, two-dimensional visual arts constituted of painting and drawing and were by nature unique. In the 16th century appeared gravure, etching, and lithographs, and with them art which existed in more than one copy. The matrices that allowed the subsequent prints were made of stone, copper plates, and were degrading substantially over use. This is why limited editions existed then, as after a while the matrices were just not good enough to satisfy the artist any longer. The early prints were then considered the best ones.
Photography was invented in its primary form by Nicephore Niepce in 1825. Daguerre followed up and developed the discovery into the first commercially and practical process, the Daguerreotype, which for forty years was the de facto photographic method used all over the world. That process yielded a print which was unique. It is in fact Henry Fox Talbot (who invented his process in 1834, more or less at the same time when Daguerre came up with the Daguerreotype) who is the father of modern photography as we know it : an image is captured on a substrate (plate, film, digital file etc…) and can then be reproduced on print nearly indefinitely.
The “negative”-positive process has dominated the world of photography roughly since 1880 to these days, but the limitless amount of prints that the technology allowed started to get challenged for marketing reasons in the mid 1970’s. Before then only a few photographers had chosen to limit their amount of prints per image, typically out of conceptual strategies and technical requirements. In the mid 1970’s, some folks understood that the buyers were worried by the potential lack of rarity of a photographic print, and that if there was going to be a limited amount of prints per image, those prints would then become more attractive for collectors and would fetch higher prices.
As far as marketing goes, that was brilliant, but from an ethical point of view, this was rather immoral, and I am told that Fox-Talbot was rocking his coffin. This creates artificial scarcity for the sole purpose of inflating prices. If people want to produce only so many prints of a photograph for technical considerations, or because they would rather move on to something else, that is fine, but that does not require limiting the edition. After all who knows if some day one might not want to revisit such or such photograph ?
In practice most of the photographers limit their editions to what the market will absorb, and the amount of exhausted editions is way less than those that still have prints available. Also limited editions are way more common among photographers whose work is easily renewable, artists who do fabricate their concept for instance, while photojournalists who might have a unique photograph dependent on reality and on the fly skills, are less likely to go for that. In practice limited editions have a tendency to limit above the threshold of the demand, but whether that is always the case or not, it is above all a gimmick that tries to create an arbitrary artificial scarcity, when rarity should come from artistic and technical accomplishment.
Whether my prints for instance, are produced through analog or digital means, I produce them myself, at every step, using the most sophisticated techniques I know, and there is therefore no danger that the world will ever be swamped with them, as I only have 24 hours everyday to produce anything. My prints are therefore rare, not because I artificially decide to place a limit on their amount, but rather because of their excellence, which requires time and effort.
Limited editions are also bad for art, as they could end the life of an image prematurely. Vision and technical progress of the artist as well as technological improvements, allow to produce prints of a given image that constantly evolve. Typically, although not always, the prints become better and better, or at least different, probably reflecting the time at which they were produced.
In the end, those who can only conceive value in art, if paired with scarcity, might also want to consider that the real rarity in art is excellence. This is what I call real value, by opposition to hyped value. Artists who generate excellence in art, need sometimes to be able to distribute their work other than confidentially. So in the end buyers need to be aware that they may have a rare print (by numerical assessment) of a confidential artist, or a less rare print (although possibly a more excellent one) from an artist whose recognition and popularity is larger, which reflects positively on the print value. It should be noted that the most well known photographers (Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson etc… did not limit their prints, which nevertheless fetch good prices on the market, albeit, truly would not be considered a speculative commodity.
Of course all the negative effects of limited editions on art and the artists only verify if the artists are honest about it, which might not always be the case.
Because of all this, I do not limit the edition of my prints. I number them, and include on the back of them, details explaining how the image was captured and how the print was made, as well as where the print stands in the history of that photograph, and when suiting, what significance it has in my work. The photograph above, shows what the back of one of my prints looks like (click to enlarge).
It should be noted that analog prints are unique in nature, especially when they require numerous and complex interventions, like all mine do, from the exposure to the chemical treatments.
For similar reasons, prints that I frame myself, end up as unique pieces, as no two frames of mine are similar. The frames I make are stained and finished in a very manual and artisanal fashion, and consequently all have unique characteristics.