Climate change is arguably the most important challenge ever faced by our species, but the magnitude of the problem and timescales involved can make it difficult to conceptualize in human terms.
To this end, the self-described “experimental philosopher” and artist Jonathon Keats has designed a pinhole camera that will take a 1,000-year exposure of Lake Tahoe, which straddles the border of California and Nevada. Keats, whose most recent project was a brain-controlled factory, hopes the cameras will help our descendants understand climate dynamics and help people envision their long-term impact on the environment today.
“We are changing the planet on timescales of a 1,000, 10,000 or even 100,000 years and we're completely incapable of psychologically appreciating the power that we have,” Keats told me on the phone. “They’re a means to have a sort of cognitive prosthesis, a mechanism for us to be able to see ourselves from that far-future perspective.”
Keats’ placed his Millennium Cameras at four locations around Lake Tahoe. Each camera is made of copper and is only 2.75 inches long and 2.25 inches in diameter. Inside the camera is a sheet of 24-karat gold pierced by a small hole. As light passes through this small hole, it causes a reaction with the rose-colored pigment inside the camera, which causes the color to fade where the light is the brightest. This will slowly imprint an image on the pigment over the next 1,000 years.
"I just signed a contract with Sierra Nevada College that is for an exhibition of these four photographs in the year 3018."
According to Keats, the Millennium Cameras have been years in the making. They originated from a project Keats did in Berlin, in which dozens of cheap pinhole cameras were sold for a few dollars apiece and meant to document the way the city was changing. These cameras would be placed in a location by their purchaser and left there for 100 years at which point they would be collected and the photos featured in a museum.
“The idea was that these cameras can allow you to see yourself in terms of the next generation, in terms of how a city develops,” Keats said. “It also got me thinking about even longer term possibilities and how they could be used to watch the transformation of the entire planet.”
Although pinhole cameras date back to the earliest days of photography, Keats had to specially adapt the design for his Millennium Cameras. The 100 year cameras placed around Berlin created a picture on a paper-based emulsion and this was unlikely to withstand 1,000 years outside. The problem is that photography has only been around since the mid-nineteenth century so there isn’t really any data available for how best to preserve images on this sort of timescale.
According to Keats, the best data he could find on long-term image preservation was from studies done on renaissance paintings, many of which are well over 500 years old. If a painting or photograph is left for too long in the light, it will begin to fade. The rate at which it fades depends on both the amount of light it is exposed to as well as the material the painting is made of. A similar effect is at work in Keats’ Millennial Cameras. The main difference is that the pinhole is projecting an image of whatever the camera is pointed at, so when the pigment inside the camera fades, it reproduces that image.
To make sure the image would last for a thousand years, Keats borrowed a technique from Renaissance painters who worked with copper. This involved rubbing the copper with pumice stone, then rubbing it with garlic and finally applying a layer of pigment. After studying different pigments, Keats chose rose madder, a red pigment that is derived from the root of a madder plant.
Prior to making the four Millennium Cameras around Lake Tahoe, Keats installed two others at Arizona State University and Amherst College in 2015, both of which are also meant to last for 1,000 years. He views the Millennium Cameras as a sort of “constructive surveillance” that occurs on a societal, rather than individual level.
As with normal long-exposure photography, Keats’ pinhole cameras will capture the way the landscape changes over the years. The sharpness of the image will ultimately depend on a number of factors, including how rapidly the landscape it is observing changes and whether the camera actually survives everything that could go wrong.
“The changes that happen may wipe out the camera or wipe out the institution that’s in charge of it,” Keats told me. “I just signed a contract with Sierra Nevada College that is for an exhibition of these four photographs in the year 3018. We’re certainly taking chances with this, but that’s also part of the picture in a way.”