Window to the future

Artist launches 1,000-year photography project in the Tahoe Basin

Philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats stands near two of his millennium cameras at the opening of the “Tahoe Timescape” exhibit at Sierra Nevada College in October. This month, Keats will install these cameras at outdoor vantage points around the Tahoe Basin.

Philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats stands near two of his millennium cameras at the opening of the “Tahoe Timescape” exhibit at Sierra Nevada College in October. This month, Keats will install these cameras at outdoor vantage points around the Tahoe Basin.

Photo/Kelsey Fitzgerald

For more information on the “Tahoe Timescape” project, visit

One thousand years from now, in the year 3018, Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village has committed to holding an art exhibition opening reception. It’s true; there’s a formal contract in place. Weather permitting, the event is set to occur on or about Oct. 18, 3018, from 6 to 8 p.m., and if your descendants have no other plans for that evening, you might leave word that they should check it out.

The exhibit, which will feature the work of San Francisco-based philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats, will explore a millennium of environmental change in the Tahoe Basin by way of an experiment in deep time photography.

His experiment begins now. This November, as part of the “Tahoe Timescape” project, Keats will install four millennium cameras—simple pinhole cameras designed for extreme durability—at viewpoints around the Lake Tahoe Basin, each set to take a 1,000-year long photographic exposure.

“When you take a photograph where the exposure time is extremely long, you’re not just taking an image of an object or a landscape or a person,” Keats explained. “You’re really taking a photograph showing a process of change.”

The idea behind the project, said Keats, is partly to create a long-term record of environmental change in the Tahoe Basin, but also to inspire thought about how our actions shape the future.

The cameras themselves are small copper canisters with a tiny pinhole aperture made of 24-karat gold. As sunlight enters the camera through the pinhole each day, it will very gradually fade an image onto a rose-colored pigment that Keats has painted onto a copper disc inside of the device.

In his photographs, anything that remains the same over the period of the exposure, such as the silhouette of a mountain (assuming no large-scale geologic alterations), will appear crisp and dark. Anything that changes gradually, such as a building that is constructed or removed after, say, 400 years, will appear ghostly. Things that pass more quickly, such as a human walking in front of the camera, will not be of enough significance to register.

“What you get, in effect, is an image that can be unpacked—that will show what has remained the same, what has changed,” Keats said. “As a result, it becomes for those in the future a way in which to hold us accountable for the actions that we make.”

Keats, age 48, is known for wild thought experiments ranging in scope from an attempt to genetically engineer God in a laboratory to the creation of porn theaters for houseplants (think pollination videos). He began incorporating photography into his work some time ago.

“I’ve been interested in photography for a long time and looking at ways in which photography might be activated to not only document the world in which we live, but also to allow us to interact with our world in alternative ways, specifically to do with our relationship with our environment over time,” Keats said.

In 2010, Keats designed a simple pinhole camera capable of taking a 100-year exposure, which could be constructed directly from the paper of a magazine. The designs were printed in a magazine called Good, which agreed to print any photos that are returned after 100 years.

“With the 100-year cameras, [I wanted] to make them as available as possible to as many people as possible, to be able to implement this in cities or wherever they live, as a way in which to instill a bit of the paranoia, I guess, that comes along with any act of surveillance,” Keats said. “That these cameras are being hidden, and people are being watched by those who are not yet born.”

Continuing in this vein, Keats launched a century camera project in Berlin in 2014, enlisting citizens to hide 100 pinhole cameras of a more durable design around the city. Participants were asked to instruct a child of the next generation to return the cameras and resulting images to a specific gallery in Berlin in 2114.

In 2015, Keats took the century camera idea a step further, fine-tuning his design to what he hopes will be able to capture a 1,000-year long photographic exposure. He installed one such millennium camera on an art museum at Arizona State University, looking out at the city of Tempe, and another looking out at the Holyoke Range in Massachusetts from a steeple at Amherst College.

Lake view

For the “Tahoe Timescape” project, Keats’s most ambitious millennium camera project to date, he has worked closely with Tahoe Public Art and other local organizations, including Sierra Nevada College and the Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC) on everything from logistical matters—the permitting process for a 1,000-year art installation is complex, he says—to developing avenues for public participation.

Mountain Forge, a blacksmith shop in Truckee, will affix each camera firmly to its location at four vantage points around Lake Tahoe: Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe; Eagle Rock in Homewood, California; Lake Tahoe Dam in Tahoe City, California; and Sand Harbor, Nevada. The Washoe Tribe has provided traditional Washoe names for each location, which will be listed on plaques near the cameras along with the English name and GPS coordinates.

As soon as the cameras are in place, Keats hopes to get members of the public out to see them. A map, which will be made available at Lake Tahoe visitor centers, will provide instructions on how to find the camera locations. In some cases, such as the camera by the Tahoe Dam, that will be easy—and in other cases, the trip will require a hike.

“There’s a quest involved, if you want to fully experience the project,” Keats said. “And that quest becomes a story that you tell. It’s a way in which you engage with time and with these cameras and with the environment. That you are physically experiencing the environment in the process of visiting these cameras is a really important part of it.“

Every three years for the next millennium, Sierra Nevada College has committed to bringing art students out to the camera sites, where they will create images depicting what they think the landscape will look like in 3018, providing an ongoing catalog of change over time. Collaboration with TERC’s citizen science program is in the works as well.

Elsewhere in the region, Keats is working with the Nevada Museum of Art to develop a 5,000-year calendar based on the growth rate of eastern Nevada’s bristlecone pines (See “Long view,” Art of the State, Oct. 12, 2017)—another project aimed at inspiring thought about our relationship with the Earth over time.

With any of these extremely long-term endeavors, Keats acknowledges that there’s much that could go wrong. The millennium cameras could be stolen. The bristlecone pine trees could die. The light level coming through the atmosphere could change as climate changes, altering the exposure of the photographs, or changing the speed that the trees grow. All will inform what we see—or don’t see—in the end picture, and Keats believes that failure will be informative rather than catastrophic.

“We’re in beta here,” Keats said. “It has never been done before. There are many reasons why this might fail. Maybe we’ll get it better the next 1,000-year cycle.”