Signatures on Photographs?

I often get this question in class: Should I sign my photographs on the front or back when they are exhibited? Should I use an identity plate or watermark on my commercial work?

This is a really good question and one that should be answered historically. The histories of the signature in art run deep. Modernist art, though resistant to classical themes, still subsumed histories of the academy that privileged the expression of the artist and centered the artist’s intentionality. The artist as a personality or talented genius factored into the rarity value of the art. Therefore a signature, proved to authenticate works that were made by the artist’s hand—increasing its collectible value.

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In 1917, Marcel Duchamp presented Fountain, a sculpture he called a ‘readymade’—because it was an ordinary manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art. This rocked the Paris art world, not only for its challenge to the status of art-making, but also because of its mocking tone that posited the name of the artist didn’t matter.

By the 1960’s, the emergence of contemporary art began to resist dated ideas of authorship. Roland Barthe’s wrote an essay entitled Death of the Author which criticized the idea of the author’s voice or hand determining the meaning of a work, and argued for a more democratic and open way of making and reading works. This marked a moment in art history where photographers working across genres of the medium followed suit with other artists and began dropping the visibility of their signatures favoring a (verso) signature on the back of a work v.s. a (recto) signature that was signed on the front. Signing works on the back, affords the work to decenter the artist and center the image visually.

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Here are some photographers that sign their work on the back for these reasons:
William Eggleston
Cindy Sherman
Greg Crewdson
Larry Sultan
Annie Leibovitz
Robert Adams
Sebastiao Salgado
Steve McCurry
Alec Soth

So, why do some photographers keep signing their images on the front? Probably the same reason some artists keep reviving other traditions in art of depicting pastoral landscapes or putting images in fancy frames…It’s tradition.

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It’s important to weigh the idea of authenticating work/preventing theft in relationship to presenting your work. Does the watermark or identity plate obstruct the viewing of the image? Is it redundant on your website—effecting the attention of the viewer? Does it look professional? In an age where anyone could airbrush out a digital signature or crop a photo in Photoshop, is fixating on theft prevention the best way to attract a viewer? 

When students ask me what they should do, I always tell them to research. Who are the photographers you look up to? What is their practice like? On a recent field trip to California Museum of Photography we asked a curator what their preference was and they responded that signatures do bring value to the sale of an image, signatures last longer when written in pencil over pen and that the placement of it depends on the market you are selling in. If you are gearing your work for a contemporary audience, marring the surface or having a competing form on the front of the work is frowned upon.

For archival prints, she suggests creating a stamp with a corresponding pencil signature that is placed on the back (verso) of artworks, editioning the run that will be printed so a collector knows the value of the work. (for instance 1 of 100 prints.)

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