Berlin Takes A Hundred-Year-Long Photograph With The Century Camera Project

An artist’s “unauthorized surveillance” project will, if it works, allow not-yet-born citizens of Berlin to see 100 years of the city’s development via ultra-long exposure photographs.

What if you could take a hundred-year-long exposure photograph? On May 16, the Team Titanic art gallery in Berlin will distribute 100 pinhole cameras to anyone who’s willing to pay a 10 Euro deposit. Recipients will then be asked to hide those cameras around the city–anywhere they want, pointed at anything they want. Then, one century later, on May 16 2114, descendants of the original hundred Berliners, will retrieve these cameras and return them to the gallery. They will be given their ancestor’s 10 euro deposit. And the photographs will go on display.


At least that’s the intent of Jonathon Keats, the experimental philosopher and conceptual artist behind the Century Camera project. “There will be anywhere from zero to 100 cameras retrieved 100 years from now,” says Keats. Because who knows if the cameras will be destroyed by the elements. Or if the ancestors of the original Berliners will follow the instructions. Or if Team Titanic will even still exist.

But Keats is hopeful that these cameras will provide a multi-faceted record of Berlin’s architectural changes. “We’re not naturally attuned to seeing how change in a city takes place,” he says. “I wanted to notice and observe that change–to more intelligently consider what becomes of any city in which we live.” He says that developers and activists often dictate the fate of a cityscape. But what about the rest of us? Perhaps “placing a means of surveillance in the hands of generation not yet born” could give ordinary city folk a sense of responsibility toward our urban homes.

Say Cheese . . . For 100 Years

Though the Century Camera project looks resolutely toward the future, its technology is rooted in the past. Pinhole cameras date to the mid 19th century. They were constructed from metal canisters or boxes with photographic paper inside. A puncture in the center of the camera acted like a lens, exposing the film to light. Gradually, the image in view of the pinhole would appear on the paper. “Imagine a poster on the wall being exposed to sunlight every day,” explains Keats. “Eventually, the paper will fade and turn white or light gray.”

Since Keats’s cameras will undergo a 100-year exposure time, however, he’s using black card stock. If the camera is pointed toward a house and that house continues to sit there for 100 years, it will come out sharply on the paper. But if that house is knocked down after 20 years and replaced with a new building, you’ll be able to see both in the photo. Whatever building is exposed for a shorter amount of time will appear superimposed, like a shadow or a ghost. Cars or pedestrians, which pass quickly by the lens, won’t appear at all.

But why such low tech? “The more complicated the tech becomes, the less likely it is to hold up,” says Keats. “Also, it’s more likely that people will know what to do with it after 100 years.” (He has a point. We can easily look at a painting that was made centuries ago. But centuries from now, once computers as we know them become obsolete, good luck trying to pull up our iPhone photos.) Keats’s canisters are rust-proof and the small size of the pinholes control the amount of moisture let inside. And though Google Street View might provide a more widespread, colorful picture of our urban spaces, it’s not as participatory. This project requires different generations to interact with each other–and to decide what’s worthy of record.


A Hundred Images Paint One Picture

The results of Keats’s project will be value-laden: how the old, long-standing buildings will appear darker and more solid, while their newer, more modern counterparts will be merely shadows. Or how the most basic 19th-century technology makes this project possible. But Keats isn’t trying to moralize about change. “The cameras are simply observing, and I’m simply providing a means for that observation taking place,” he says.

You could easily train the lens on a street that you don’t want to change, in order to make people aware of imminent construction or even “shame” developers, he says. But you could just as easily “put the camera in a place that desperately needs to be improved in the hope that something better will be created in time. “With so many subjective viewpoints, we may get something close to an objective picture,” he says.

To this end, Keats would like to see thousands of cameras distributed, not hundreds. He’s trying to take the project to L.A. and Mexico. And he would like UNESCO to pass out cheap pinhole cameras across the developing world. “Everyone would be able to take history in hand by taking the future in hand,” he says. “One hundred years from now, you could have the first of a daily art exhibition.” One photo for every single day, into infinity.

About the author

Jennifer Miller is the author of The Year of the Gadfly (Harcourt, 2012) and Inheriting The Holy Land (Ballantine, 2005). She's a regular contributor to Co.Create.