Jonathan Keats | Photographing Tahoe for 1,000 years

Jonathan Keats | Jen Dessinger

Self-titled experimental philosopher and conceptual artist Jonathon Keats is known to push the envelope with his projects, such as attempting to re-engineer the metric system, create a replica of God using genetic modification and directing a honeybee ballet in San Francisco. Called a “poet of ideas” by The New Yorker, Keats is undertaking one of his biggest and longest-term projects yet: Tahoe Timescape. He will place his pinhole millennial cameras in different areas of Tahoe to photographically capture the next 1,000 years of environmental change.

WATCH Keats explain the millennium camera project

Keats has been visiting Tahoe since he was a child, spending a week at the lake during summer vacations when his family moved from New York City to the West Coast in 1976. Keats remembers visiting Dollar Point, Homewood, South Lake Tahoe, Incline Village and Tahoe City and learned how to ski at Sugar Bowl.

After he graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts, Keats moved back to San Francisco to do a series of experimental art projects with an emphasis on shifting people’s perspective on change and social responsibility. In 2010, he teamed up with Good magazine to create a simple box pinhole camera in an attempt to capture a 100-year-old exposure. The results are set to be published in Good’s January 2110 edition.

Between his love of Tahoe and his interest in deep-time photography, Keats decided to go one step further and develop a millennial camera for Tahoe.

“It sort of became a punctuated experiment of the lake and its change. I would get a snapshot view of it one week out of the year and one of the big impressions to me was how the lake could be higher or lower from one year to the next. The lake is in constant flux, noticeable to me even back then,” says Keats. “I came up with the Century Camera Project and launched it in Berlin in 2014. It was well received and took on a means of surveillance by those most affected in the future. The black box in a general sense is like how an airplane operates — to record what happens over the span of a flight, like looking into the future.”

Keats hopes that this project will help people recognize the incredible power that the human race has on the planet.

“We don’t have the mental apparition yet to question our civic sense or a political system that is operating at a span of more than a two- or four-year cycle. So Tahoe became an ideal site for this, put into a much more complex system that other research parties can use and provoke a larger set of questions,” he says.

The Millennium camera at the Tahoe City dam. | Ryland West

The four millennial cameras are set to be placed at Sand Harbor State Park on the East Shore, Eagle Rock on the West Shore, Heavenly Mountain Resort on the South Shore and Tahoe City on the North Shore, facing the dam capturing a combination of high and low views. The cameras will be accessible to the public in summer and winter and their placements will hopefully entice people to go outside and find them.

“I want to get people to see these cameras in space and time, extrapolating futures, engaging the past and present,” Keats says.

Keats will be hosting a panel discussion and exhibition at Sierra Nevada College, encouraging local college students to question this project and form predictions based on the past for future views. He will also teach university students the process of making century pinhole cameras.

“It takes a more complex and expensive camera to survive 1,000 years, whereas 100-year cameras will have more of a likelihood to make it,” he says.

Even though the cost of the materials in the millennial cameras is minimal, they are more expensive in the time they take to make. The cameras are about 3 inches long and 2 inches in diameter, with copper casing and a 24-carat-gold aperture for light to pass through. The projection will face where it’s brightest and the focus will show what has changed over time.

“I’m interested to see how people in Tahoe will engage it. Ultimately, this is your project and the people who live there in the next 1,000 years. This is cyclical reckoning with time and revelation of possible futures. Whatever happens with it is meaningful, but we can make meaning out of our actions today,” says Keats.

Tahoe Timescape Project panel
Oct. 18 | 5 p.m.
Sierra Nevada College | Incline Village, Nev.

Keats will be part of a panel discussion on Oct. 18 at Sierra Nevada College along with UC Davis TERC director Geoff Schladow and SNC professor and gallery director Russell Dudley, moderated by Tahoe Public Art executive director Mia Hanak. | sierranevada.edu