Jonathon Keats's Century Camera


2 December 2014

In May 2014, San Franciscan conceptual artist Jonathon Keats arranged for 100 pinhole cameras to be hidden around Berlin. The cameras could be hidden anywhere – nobody knows the location of all 100 – and they have only one function. They will take a single photograph of the area of Berlin they look over, but with an exposure time of 100 years.

Keats's cameras are simple devices. Their casings are steel tea tins, the lids of which have been pricked in the middle to let in the light. Inside, in place of photographic film, there is a swatch of black paper that, over the course of 100 years will bleach into an image due to its exposure to light.

The cameras were distributed to members of the public by Berlin gallery Team Titanic. Those who took the cameras (for a deposit of €10) were given carte blanche as to where they hid them in Berlin. Each person is responsible for the secret location of their own camera and will also be responsible for passing on that secret to a successor. In 100 years, whichever cameras remain will be collected and their images extracted and exhibited.

Whatever images emerge from the project will be somewhat abstracted. Objects in place for the full 100 years will block light from entering the camera and thereby appear clear and bold. Those present for a shorter time (new buildings or structures demolished over the course of the century) will appear shadow-like, while moving objects – people and transport – will be captured as blurs or not at all. It means the end result will depict not so much a city, but rather the transformation a city undergoes over time.

The project was covered extensively in Disegno No.7. Below, we are happy to publish an extended excerpt of an interview conducted with Keats during research for the feature.

How did the Century Camera project begin?

I’ve been living in San Francisco for a good part of my life and whenever I leave town I tend to come back and to find the city transformed. Yet when I’m here on an everyday basis I never really notice those sorts of changes. In Berlin I found an even more radical version of that phenomenon. People who live in Berlin feel their city is transforming, but have difficulty gaining any sort of perspective on that. I was thinking about how a long span of time happening in a camera could therefore become a surrogate for the experience of going through life, where everything is in the moment. In a sense, the camera becomes a psychological or mental prosthesis. We think of becoming cyborgs by wearing exoskeletons or by using Oculus Rift; this is a more extreme way to become one. You have the proposition of living past your lifespan through this camera carrying on observing after your death. It’s an action through which you could gain some long-term appreciation of existing in an enduring society.

How did you develop the cameras themselves?

The cameras came about though some parallel research I was doing. Research is maybe a bit strong; I was playing with old photographic chemistry. I became interested in some of the early processes that were used in the 1850s or thereabouts by the pioneers of photography – John Herschel and the cyanotype process – where you have a very simple process for making pictures where you just use a couple of chemicals. It was relatively easy so I thought I would give it a try. I mixed it all up and found that, as anyone who has ever done this knows, the process is extraordinarily slow because the chemistry is very insensitive to light. At this time I was also thinking about this experience that I had had in Berlin and my everyday experience in San Francisco.

So I put all that together and thought about how I could make something that would be appropriate for very longterm thinking. I immediately went to an extreme round number for the caemeras, and 100 seemed like a good round number. It's longer than a lifespan because really the decisions that affect a city most affect that city in the longterm. Those who are most affected are those who are not yet born. They’re the ones who inherit the city, but they have absolutely no power over it. So on the one hand to think about how it might be possible to expand the personal vision of somebody living in a city well beyond how they would experience the city in their own right, but also how to expand it beyond the human lifespan so people would be experiencing the city from the point of view of those not yet born, so people would be experiencing this relationship across generations.

How did you develop an exposure of that length?

It was a little bit of a technological leap. Cyanotype photography is extraordinarily slow, but perhaps only two or three weeks at most. There are techniques you can use where you get up to three or four years, but I think that’s about the maximum with any sort of ordinary photosensitive process. But I realised that black paper will fade in sunlight. A poster on your wall will fade. What I thought I might try is a pinhole camera which has the advantage first of all of taking in very little light, the absolutely minimum really that a camera can, and also being extremely simple.

The 100 cameras were distributed to members of the public, who were given carte blanche as to where they hid them around Berlin

How are the cameras engineered?

There’s nothing you would expect to break down over a long time. It’s also extremely cheap, so it would be possible to make a lot of them. When you’re working with a 100-year span of time the chances of anything surviving, even if you take all the precautions, are quite small. Then there was the film. Once again I chose the simplest solution. After observing that paper will fade in the sunlight, I took that phenomenon and made that the basis of the photographic technique. I took ordinary black paper and put it into a pinhole camera so that the pinhole camera would be projecting whatever it was looking out at onto the black paper and fading it over a 100 year period. You’d end up with a movie all condensed into a single frame. Everything that happens is a part of the picture, although only those things that are there for a very long time, such as buildings for instance, or suitably regular, like traffic, will show up. So there’s a way in which you start, first of all, by changing the focus from the immediate to the enduring and secondly you capture change within the perspective of a city and look at the span of 20 or 50 or 70 years. If a building were to be torn down after 20 years and another put up in its place, then you'd have what would look like a double negative print. You would see the skyscrape that had been constructed and was there for all 70 years very bold in the picture and just a shadow of the building that had been torn down. You could think of it as a time capsule that is making itself. The camera is constantly taking in what’s happening and recording change. It’s a superimposition of present over past and whatever the new present becomes over the old.

Do you expect the cameras to survive over the 100-year span?

There are many, many ways in which this can and likely will go wrong. One of the reasons for having 100 is that it at least increases the chances that something will work out and it’s part of the reason for the incredible simplicity of this. There’s far less to break down. And whatever comes from this doesn’t require that you have the latest operating system or a 100-year-old operating system in this case. The image is there and it doesn’t require any processing beyond a simple act of opening the camera. So it seems that there is an enormous amount of faith and trust that goes into this.

How important to you and the project is it that at least some of the cameras produce a finished image?

I think it is absolutely essential that one or more of these pictures could end up in 100 years on the walls of a gallery, but it is of no importance to me whether they do. I think the more profound picture that comes out of this project is its collective interpretation of the city and society. Even if it made a more powerful or interesting picture aesthetically, I would also not presume to interfere in any way with this social process, because the social picture that emerges is one that has to emerge out of the process that has been put into motion right now. That ideally will endure enough so that there is some sort of conversation around it that happens in 100 years.

Tell me about the relationship between objective and subjective points of view in this project. The cameras are all placed according to the choice of individuals, but then they come together to try and paint some kind of objective portrait of Berlin.

I really like that idea and I think that’s a new way of looking at this. I’ve spoken a little before about the big data phenomenon and how it relates to this project. When you have these cameras out there, not only is it becoming big data from the standpoint of 100 points of view or 7bn points of view, but also it becomes big in terms of time. You are taking 100 years of data, all compressed into 100 images. To the extent that big data transforms the subject of active measurement by way of compounding it into, if not a truly objective perspective, at least the closest surrogate we have for it. There is certainly within this project that sort of move from subjective to objective that we can as participants partake in and in so doing partake in the psychological shift from thinking individually to thinking collectively. What I’m trying to say is that there is the potential and the promise in big data of a composite view of the world that gets us outside of our own rather petty self interest.

The images produced by the cameras will be, due to the length of the exposure, somewhat abstract. They will not so much display an image of a city as they will an image of the transformation a city undergoes over time

What’s your position on big data?

I’m very wary of it, as many are, for reasons that have to do with who is collecting it and how privacy remains within a society where big data becomes ubiquitous. I think this project, certainly inadvertently, responds to that question and problem in a couple of ways. First of all by the idea that big data can be emergent from the voluntary and spontaneous participation of many people in a project that extends from their relationship with each other and the phenomenon that they are observing. They can participate in a completely level, flat in hierarchical terms, surveying and observing of themselves and their world. Also, these cameras can’t really invade anybody’s privacy because technically speaking they can’t take in anything very personal. You would never be seen in any personally identifiable way by one of these cameras unless you were to stand in front of it for 20 or 30 years without moving. In that case I would say you’re giving up any pretence of privacy. But I wonder whether there are ways in which big data technology could preserve privacy by design. Can you collect data at a meaningful level, while never collecting anything individual? These cameras are not an ultimate solution, but looking at lower-tech devices may be a way of finding technologies inherently forgetful or negligent of what we don’t need for study purposes, or of what we want to preserve as part of a personal domain.

Do you have any arrangement with the city for this project?

There is no arrangement and again that is entirely on purpose. This is completely unauthorised and it has to be in order to have that sense of freedom, the conceptual framework that this is a totally free and spontaneous act on the part of people who simply agreed to take part in it. But if the city doesn’t know about it, they must really make a point of not reading their own newspapers. I’m currently in discussion with the Berlin State Museum about doing a top-down project. Doing something that would be in collaboration with the city of Berlin as a political entity, which would be in the Berlin TV tower.