Brilliantly said. I could not have expressed my very any more clearly or concisely. Thanks.
You can disagree but I still think it's true as a generalisation with the only exceptions being people who significantly change the world AND are recognised for doing so. See Ozymandias and note that those exceptions still don't have a habit of lasting very long in historical, let alone geological, time-frames.
The whole thread begs the question of "why do we care whether our efforts are recognised?", if not merely for our ego? Once you're dead, you won't care. If your photos have the ability to effect real change in the world then I can agree that there is value (beyond that to your ego) to their preservation but such works generally get noticed before the author dies. It also implies a bit of a double-standard - some people consume books of photos from famous photographers but most photographers don't do even that. We generally don't go seeking out the lost works of unknowns, so why expect that someone will do that for us? Especially considering that it's now 2012 and photography is a highly accessible medium with billions of images produced daily.
I can give only tiny guidance to those who want to have a legacy: get really famous or failing that, document your family in high quality and leave detailed notes as to date and subject identity. Your family are the only ones who may consider for a moment not discarding your negs, and if they're pictures of canals, we know what happens. That might work for 2 or 3 generations but then entropy (fire, flood, theft, loss, disorganisation) will win.
With current growth rates in digital media capacity, the advent of flickr and whatever distributed "cloud" services replace it, I suspect that (scans of) my photography will live on. Maybe. But I'd put even odds on my stupid usenet posts or whining on APUG outliving my photography. The only thing that's entropy-proof is redundancy and recopying, and that means digitising your work.
I am still a youngish old fart -- not even 60 yet, but closing in! It is still about the journey and I'm not too wrapped up with the artifacts gathered along the way. They are important and I take care of them. Except for most of the early student work. They got moldy. And some of the middle work were in print boxes that got invaded and colonized by ants. So there is less to worry about than otherwise. I have an on-going series of portraits of my boys in the environment...someone might save those. Might be enough for three mini-series, one for each boy.
Maybe in 20 or 30 years when I am really an old fart -- 80 or 90 -- I'll give away what's still around to family and friends.
About 25 years ago I had a service call at NY's Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had to meet a mechanical contractor to fix the temperature and humidity controls in some display cabinets in the Egyptian Wing. The Wing was paid for by the Rockefellers I believe. America received a gift from Egypt many years earlier called the Temple of Dendur that was to be flooded in it's original location in Egypt by the raising level of the Nile caused by the new Aswan Dam.
So I'm there earlier than opening. I was all alone, no guards or anyone else so I figure I'll start meandering around. I had never been there before. So I walk into this rather large room with the whole north wall open to the blue morning sky. There's this small stone temple in the middle of the room and a moat. As I step in I feel this strange, cool breeze that somehow takes be back 4000 years as if I was there in Egypt not in Manhattan. Although there were signs forbidding entrance, I decided to go through the temple's entrance to see what's in there. The opening dog legs left and then right and ends at a wall. Really not much to see inside. But at the end of the first left, there graffitied on the wall is "John 1843". The name and exact date may be off, my memory fades me, but that's about what it was.
So I wonder who John was? Why was he in Egypt? And what part of his ego possessed him to scrawl his name and date inside a temple. This probably is the only remaining part of himself for posterity. We all want our place in the sun.
Well, as least his name won't fade as fast as prints.
I have been concerned about this problem as I have aged, too. I'm 61 now and in decent health, but I have no kids to leave my work to. I doubt that my wife's nieces and nephews would be interested in them. So I have no idea what will happen to my "artistic" photos.
However, I have been shooting photographs of ballet companies and dancers here in PR since 1984, and I have a huge collection of negatives... but not too many contact sheets. I have spoken to the director of Ballets de San Juan, my major client, about my archives. They are interested in them, but have no archival storage space in which to keep them... or other archival photos that they have kept for over 40 years. Still, I would probably donate my negatives of their performances to them before I die.
Sometimes I think we confuse wanting our work to survive and wanting memories of who we are to survive. By way of example I have a couple very nice oil paintings by my great grandmother hanging in my house. They are high quality works by hobbyist standards, probably the equivalent of my own photographic output in that sense. She died when I was ten and I never knew her, so looking at the paintings does not in any way remind me of her. I look at them and think, "My great-grandmother painted those." But that's it. A few generations from now the paintings will be mere relics with no sense of the person behind them at all.
If I am lucky enough to have some of my photos survive 100 years hence, so what? No one in the family who looks at them will have known me or know what I was about. In some ways I would much rather my correspondence or journals survive. That way there is a chance that aspects of who I am will survive into the future, the way my grandfather does for me when I read his letters. In fact, I have many photographs taken by my grandfather, but I would rather read his letters than look at his photos.
I am 45, healthy, etc.
But I have thought about this and made arrangements a few years back. Thankfully, at least 2/3rds of my life's work has places to go.
Landfill - or if someone's really smart, silver reclamation.