The 10,000 Year Photograph


Yesterday I covered the 10,000 Year Clock: a clock designed to tick just once per year, and intended to run for a long, long time. The clock will be housed in a chamber inside a mountain in Nevada (yes, The Long Now Foundation bought a mountain for this purpose -- pictured below, left), and photographer Edward Burtynsky wants to put some photographic art in that chamber. But how do you make a photographic print that will last 10,000 years?

But backing up a bit, the first question is: why photographs? Why not statues or some other highly durable art form? Burtynsky answers: "because [photographs] tell us more than any previous medium. When we think of our own past, we tend to think in terms of family photos." While I think this is a very recent notion (as is photography in general), maybe he has a point -- if we had photographs of human life from thousands of years ago, they would surely tell us a lot about those periods. Here's more from an article on Burtynsky's project:

But photographic prints, especially color prints, degrade badly over time. Burtynsky went on a quest for a technical solution. He thought that automobile paint, which holds up to harsh sunlight, might work if it could be run through an inkjet printer, but that didn't work out. Then he came across a process first discovered in 1855, called "carbon transfer print." It uses magenta, cyan, and yellow inks made of ground stone—the magenta stone can only be found in one mine in Germany—and the black ink is carbon. On the stage Burtynsky showed a large carbon transfer print of one of his ultra-high resolution photographs. The color and detail were perfect. Accelerated studies show that the print could hang in someone's living room for 500 years and show no loss of quality. Kept in the Clock's mountain in archival conditions it would remain unchanged for 10,000 years. He said that making one print takes five days of work, costs $2,000, and only ten artisans in the world have the skill, at locations in Toronto, Seattle, and Cornwall. Superb images can be made on porcelain (or Clock chamber walls), but Burtynsky prefers archival watercolor paper, because the ink bonds deep into the paper, and in the event of temperature changes, the ink and paper would expand and contract together.

Read the rest for a bit more on Burtynsky's proposed project. See also: Wikipedia on Burtynsky, and Manufactured Landscapes, an excellent documentary about his unique photography.