In his book Camera Lucida, the French philosopher Roland Barthes calls cameras “clocks for seeing,” marveling at their inspiring and troubling ability to capture and arrest time, pulling people and events out context. But what if we designed cameras to document the flow and inexorable passage of time, instead of trying to freeze it during moments we want to hang onto?
A new project by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats involves creating simple, incredibly durable pinhole cameras that will slowly create a single image over the course of a century or a millennium. At the “Deep Time Photo Lab” at Arizona State University’s Emerge festival on Friday, March 6, Keats will help people create century cameras—palm-size, dead-simple devices constructed from metal tins that focus a tiny beam of light and bleach an image into a sheet of black paper inside the tin, at a glacial pace. People will then hide their cameras throughout the Phoenix, Arizona, metro area, where they will quietly monitor changes in the urban landscape and natural environment between 2015 and 2115.
On the same day, Keats will unveil a millennium camera at the ASU Art Museum. The museum has committed to displaying the millennium camera’s single photograph in a monthlong exhibition in 3015. (Keats does not plan to attend—“I’ll be dead,” he told me matter-of-factly.)