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Philosopher plans to take a slow picture over the next thousand years

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If you’ve ever taken a long-exposure or slow-shutter photograph – of the night sky, say, or to turn a city street into a streak of tail lights – you’ll have some inkling of what philosopher Jonathan Keats is up to in the desert outside Tucson, Ariz.

His exposure is just a little longer, his shutter a little slower. Instead of a minute, or an hour, he plans to take a single photograph over the next thousand years.

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The Millennium Camera, as the experimental philosopher and research associate at the University of Arizona’s College of Fine Arts calls his creation, is a simple, low-tech device. It has to be, if it’s going to last for the next ten centuries.

A steel pole topped by a small copper cylinder, the Millennium Camera faces the desert landscape and a neighbourhood called Star Pass on the outskirts of Tucson. One end of the cylinder features a tiny pinhole that will allow a smidgeon of light to enter. The other looks like a Methuselan tombstone, embossed with its creator’s name and the dates “2023 – 3023.”

Inside the cylinder is a light-sensitive surface covered in many thin layers of an oil paint pigment called rose madder. The idea is that, over the centuries, the light will cause the rose madder to fade, gradually create an image.

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The camera and accompanying signage are next to a bench at the side of a popular hiking trail, inviting people to stop and ponder this experiment in what’s known as deep time.

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“Deep time” refers to scales of time that are vast and geological, as distinct from the way humans perceive timescales on the order of days or years. Though the term was coined by author John McPhee in a 1981 book about geology, the notion has long held a fascination with philosophers. In 1788, a mere 236 years ago, scientist John Playfair remarked after looking at rock strata that “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”

Millennium Camera
The Millennium Camera gets its picture taken by an ordinary camera. Photo by Christopher Richards /University of Arizona

“Most people have a pretty bleak outlook on what lies ahead,” Keats says in a press release from the University. “It’s easy to imagine that people in 1,000 years could see a version of Tucson that is far worse than what we see today, but the fact that we can imagine it is not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing, because if we can imagine that, then we can also imagine what else might happen, and therefore it might motivate us to take action to shape our future.”

Keats is fully aware that his experiment might not run its course. It’s difficult to plan contingencies for an artefact meant to last as long as the Bayeux tapestry or the earliest known copy of Beowulf. But he clearly relishes the idea of what such a photograph might reveal.

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“Let’s take a really dramatic case where all the housing is removed 500 years in the future,” he says. “What will happen then is the mountains will be clear and sharp and opaque, and the housing will be ghostly. All change will be superimposed on one image that can be reconstructed layer by layer in terms of interpretation of the final image.”

He also points out that the philosophy behind his project is one of neutral observation. “By no means is the camera making a statement about development – about how we should build the city or not going forward,” he says. “It is set there to invite us to ask questions and to enter into conversation and invite the perspective of future generations in the sense that they’re in our minds.”

The Millennium Camera is not even Keats’ first foray into deep time. In 2010 he created the Century Camera, published in Good Magazine and intended to be cut out, folded into a box and left to weather for a hundred years. Keats promised that a special edition of the magazine would be printed in 2110 with readers’ submissions of their resulting photos.

Keats has plans to set up additional Millennium Cameras in Chongqing, China; Griffith Park in Los Angeles; the Austrian Alps; and the Santa Rita Experimental Range in Arizona, where scientists have already been taking repeated photographs of the same locations regularly for more than a century.

He might also want to consider setting one up at the Science Museum in London, England. That’s the location of a prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, a deep-time timepiece designed to tick once a year, advance its century hand once every hundred years, and chime on the millennium. When it strikes AD 3000, it would signal that Keats’ photograph would be almost ready for viewing.

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