In the year 3015, the camera shutter will finally click on a millennium-long photograph of Tempe, Arizona.
The 1,000-year camera, along with another that will be installed this year at Amherst College in Massachusetts, is the latest experiment in ultraslow photography from artist and “experimental philosopher” Jonathon Keats, who built a camera last year to take a century-long photo in Berlin.
“It’s about looking at, into, and through time, in different terms,” says Keats. “The 100-year camera is about a relationship with a generation not yet born. The way in which in a city, the urban development that we are responsible for affects them in every possible way–it affects them more than it affects us, yet they’re the least empowered to do anything about it.”
The 1,000-year photograph is meant to push people to think even farther ahead, to consider the effects of our choices today in geological time. “Our impact on the environment is geological in force–climate change is operational at a thousand, ten-thousand, hundred-thousand-year sort of timespan, and yet we’ve evolved as a species with a lifespan of, optimistically, 100 years,” he says. “Our technology has given us leverage over the world that is totally out of proportion with how we’ve evolved.”
As people imagine what the photo might look like in a millennium, Keats hopes the camera can act as what he calls a “mental prosthesis.” “It’s a technology that allows for you to put yourself into the far future, looking back on yourself in the present,” he says. “Sort of a feedback loop.”
The camera uses a pinhole to slowly capture an image. “The way it works is very simple, and it really has to be, because if this is going to work for that long, potentially, it has to be simple from the standpoint that anything that can break down inevitably will,” he says.
Though a pinhole camera would normally use film, film doesn’t last long. Keats researched art history and archeology to discover what might have the potential to last 1,000 years, and ended up using copper covered in layers of paint that will slowly fade in the light from the pinhole. Over time, it will create a shadowy picture of change.
“It’s kind of a whole movie that’s compressed into a single frame,” Keats says. In a century-long photo, for example, if one building stands for 20 years and then is replaced by another, the image will show a ghostlike outline of the first building, and a darker image of the one that stood longer.
He chose Tempe, Arizona, as a classic example of a city that is now incorporating its own suburban sprawl. As the area urbanizes, it’s becoming more efficient, but it’s also emblematic of how cities struggle to manage resources, because it’s at the epicenter of a long drought. Keats wanted to see how it would fare in the future.
At Amherst College, he’s installing another camera with a very different view, focused on nearby mountains and the natural world. “It’s looking out on hundreds of microclimates,” he says. The camera will show how the natural landscape changes.
Ultimately, Keats hopes to cover the world in the cameras. In part, that’s for a practical reason: If there are more cameras, there’s a better chance that some will survive. He also hopes that the cameras, placed in cities and natural areas globally, become small monuments to thinking about the future.
Keats also created a low-cost cardboard version of the camera that’s designed for 100-year exposures for a feature in GOOD Magazine, and he’d like it to eventually be widely available. “It could easily be mass-produced at low cost,” he says. “The idea is to make it a birthright for every child–you’d get one to take and put out into the world. Starting in 100 years, you’d have a daily exhibition of images coming in while others are going out, creating a sense of continuity and collective ownership and responsibility.”