Several things came together for me this summer. The first was a question from an acquaintance, a painter and retired public school art teacher. He was asking where he and other older artists could deposit, donate or store their art work where it would be well taken care of when they died. I'm sure that most of us who produce works of art would like to think that they won't just be scattered to the four winds and unappreciated. Yet, realistically, unless we are of the caliber of Picasso or Van Gogh, it's unlikely that much of our work will be treasured by anyone after we're gone.
At about the same time, I read "American Nirvana" by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker (August 7 & 14, 2017). It made me think of how much suffering and anxiety is engendered by our attachment to things--even things of our own creation, be they material works of art or, as is the case for many photographers, images encoded in digital files. I realized that, even thought I have been practicing photography in a concentrated way for less than a decade, I have accumulated ("amassed" might be a better word) thousands of images, hundreds of prints and several dozen frames. Unless I put some determined effort into organizing and culling them, I will be leaving a mess for my heirs sometime in the next twenty-five years or so.
Into my pondering on this subject came another article, "The Best Time Ever" by an editor of LensWork, Brooks Jensen (LensWork #131: August 2017). Brooks suggests that we consider publishing photographic works primarily in PDF format rather than in photo books or as prints. This makes some sense. If my heirs wanted to, reviewing PDF files, deciding which to keep and which to discard, would surely be easier than sorting through prints. They could easily decide to ignore all of them without having to find somewhere to dispose of them. (Of course, they would be stored on some media--DVDs, flash drives, external hard drives, the "cloud," etc.. But these are compact enough that they could be ignored for years without bothering anyone. In fact, I presume that images stored in the "cloud" would simply be destroyed soon after it became apparent that the owner was not paying the fees required to maintain them.)
Prints would still be made for exhibits, or course, of for sale by galleries and display in museums. But I anticipate that the volume of this material in the perpetual care of the artist (and her or his heirs) would be relatively small.
Yet, I remain somewhat unconvinced. For me, making a print is an enjoyable and rewarding part of the craft, or even the artistry, of photography. It requires finalizing decisions about the image, choosing a size and adapting the image to a combination of printer, ink and paper (or canvas or metal transparency or. . .). Perhaps technology will advance rapidly in this area, but today few have the opportunity to view images on a large screen with sufficient resolution to match what can be achieved in a modest print of 12" x 18" or 20" x 30" Printing also provides the opportunity for publishing limited editions (for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to sell editions of more than zero), with greater control than can be exercised over PDF files and other electronic media.
Because I enjoy making prints, I continue to print at least one per week (to keep the nozzles from clogging) plus any I need for exhibits, sale or as gifts. Thus, I continue to accumulate over fifty additional prints per year.
I would be interested to hear how others are dealing with this issue.