This Camera Is Taking a 1,000-Year-Long Exposure Photo of Tucson’s Desert Landscape

Jonathon Keats, who devised the plan, hopes the camera will inspire onlookers to contemplate how humanity’s actions affect the environment

Millennium Camera
The Millenium Camera, set on the path of a hiking trail in Tucson Arizona, is capturing an image over the course of 1,000 years. The University of Arizona

While most cameras snap photos in a matter of milliseconds, Jonathon Keats, an experimental philosopher at the University of Arizona, is slowing things down: He has set up a camera to capture a single image of a desert landscape in Tucson over the span of 1,000 years. The image will be ready in 3023.

The recently installed “Millennium Camera” is located on the path of a hiking trail facing Tumamoc Hill, according to ScienceAlert’s David Nield. Nearby signage asks onlookers to contemplate what the next millennium might look like.

“I’ve been trying to figure out how we can somehow instill some sense of the consequences of our actions over a span of time that in some way coincides with or reflects the degree to which we affect our environment,” Keats tells Hyperallergic’s Maya Pontone. “Photography seemed like a particularly interesting way in which to go about this.”

His creation is simple: A small copper cylinder with a pin-sized hole sits atop a steel pole. To ensure the device survives the ravages of time, the tiny opening was pierced through a thin layer of 24-karat gold. Over the next 1,000 years, sunlight that enters the contraption will slowly fade a light-sensitive surface covered in an oil paint pigment called rose madder, resulting in an extremely long-exposure image of the landscape.

Keats chose Tumamoc Hill for its rich history. The hill’s petroglyphs are “a form of communication across generations,” he says in a statement from the University of Arizona. “In the same spirit, the Millennium Camera provides a way to observe and interact.”

Millenium Camera Landscape 1
The sign by the camera overlooking Tumamoc Hill reads, “What will Tucson look like in 1,000 years? Will the city be inhabited? How will the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert change with a changing climate?” The University of Arizona

Nobody knows what Keats’ final image will look like or if the camera will perform as expected. For the experiment to succeed, the device must remain in place until 3023. “One thousand years is a long time, and there are so many reasons why this might not work,” says Keats. “The camera might not even be around in a millennium. Forces of nature and decisions people make, whether administrative or criminal, could result in the camera not lasting.”

One of the longest-exposure photographs currently known was taken with a similar device beginning in 2012. An art student had placed a pinhole camera on a telescope at the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory in England—and promptly forgot about it. Her images were found eight years later.

Eight years is far from 1,000, but Keats hopes his setup will be sufficient. He says the areas of the landscape that change the least will appear the clearest, while sections that have changed will blur together.

“Let’s take a really dramatic case where all the housing is removed 500 years in the future,” says Keats in the statement. “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.”

The camera in Tucson isn’t Keats’ first venture with experimental long-exposure photography. In 2014, the researcher worked with a team to distribute 100 cameras to residents in Berlin, instructing them to hide the cameras until 2114 for the next generation to retrieve. He has previously installed several other Millenium Cameras at Arizona State University in Tempe, Amherst College in Massachusetts and Lake Tahoe in Nevada. Keats hopes to keep installing additional Millennium Cameras in new locations around the world, from the Austrian Alps to Chongqing, China.

What life will look like in 50 years, let alone 1,000, can be hard to fathom, especially when considering factors such as climate change.

“Most people have a pretty bleak outlook on what lies ahead,” says Keats. “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.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.