Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats '94

The Mead Art Museum is already planning an exhibition in the year 3015 that will unveil the world's slowest photograph, taken in a single exposure over the course of 1,000 years. 

The conceptual artist behind the project is Jonathon Keats '94, whose "millennium camera" will be installed atop Amherst's Stearns Steeple in June 2015 to document the evolution of the nearby Mount Holyoke Range until the summer of 3015.

The technology behind Keats' camera is simple—so simple, in fact, that it doesn't involve much technology at all. Any technology we have now, says Keats, is going to be unintelligible 10 years from now, much less 1,000 years from now. In order for the camera to be sustainable over time, he continues, it can't rely on a mechanical shutter, a developing process or an operating system. 

Keats millennium camera
Millennium camera prototype. Photo by Jonathon Keats.

Keats' camera is made out of copper and uses oil paint instead of photographic film. Inside the cylindrical copper casing is a sheet of hardened 24-karat gold, pierced with a pinhole that won't deteriorate over time because gold doesn't corrode. Light is focused through the aperture onto a surface of oil paint applied directly to the back interior of the camera using a 16th-century copper painting technique. The pigment is rose madder, an ancient organic color that conservation studies have shown to fade very gradually in sunlight. Over 1,000 years, the paint will fade where the light is brightest, very slowly creating a positive image of the world.  

Keats imagines that 1,000 years from now, the photograph will be a visual record of how the Mount Holyoke Range has evolved over time: "For instance, old forest lost after a couple centuries will show up only faintly, haunting the vegetation that replaces it."

Though the project is ambitious and unlikely to come to fruition in 3015, Keats is realistic about the outcome: "Most certainly the image won't work out, for thousands of reasons. There are many things that can go wrong." But the point, he says, isn't only to create a camera that might last 1,000 years. "I intend the millennium camera also to be experienced by those alive today," he says. "The experience will not be visual, but conceptual. The process of seeing change will be internalized, prompted by the awareness that we're being watched."

But if, 1,000 years from now, the camera survives and the Mead does exhibit the photograph, Keats says it's important to note that no individual will show up in the image. "This camera really is recording collective activity. That's how big decisions get made."

Before the camera is installed in Stearns Steeple, it will be on view in the exhibition Jonathon Keats: Photographing Deep Time, April 15­–May 31, at the Mead Art Museum.

Keats discusses the project with Curator of American Art Vanja Malloy at a free public event at the Mead Art Museum on Wednesday, April 15, at 2 p.m.