Featured Filmmaker ~ Dennis Manarchy

It’s impossible to pigeonhole Dennis Manarchy. He’s Don Quixote seeking the impossible dream. He’s Captain Kirk, boldly going where no man has gone before. He’s Sir Gawain on a quest to find the holy grail. And he’s a latter day Christopher Columbus—not the Admiral of the Ocean Sea setting out to discover a new world, but a Lord of the Lens, hoping to save the old.

He is also a man with big dreams: to build a camera the size of a New York apartment; to produce an image from that camera that is two stories tall and will allow you to see a single eyelash on a child’s face; to develop a photograph that looks from the wrinkles on a man’s skin into his soul. You get the idea.

 Prototype of The Camera in Dennis Manarchy’s Studio

Creating an Homage to the Camera

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,

Happy birthday dear camera, happy birthday to you.

We are about to welcome the 200th anniversary of the invention of the camera. World-renown photographer Dennis Manarchy wants to celebrate that birthday by building a camera so big it will blow your mind. The camera, I’ll call it the Manarcamera, is a technological marvel—or nightmare, depending on how you look at it. For starters, it will be 35 feet long and you literally have to walk into it to look through a lens the size of a window. Manarcamera will produce 4.5 X 6 foot negatives that allow for enlargement of the photographs to print over two stories tall, whose details will be 1000 times greater than those from the average digital photograph, and they will be beautiful beyond imagination.

The camera is only in the prototype stage now, but Manarchy is planning to construct a state-of-the art version to fit in the back of a semi-trailer. Then, he will travel 20,000 miles across the country to record the beauty and individuality of America’s vanishing cultures—a monumental tribute to the dying art of film photography.

A rendering of the new version of the camera and an exhibit concept

Virgil Poole, one of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen

In addition to celebrating the camera’s bicentennial birthday, Manarchy has other reasons for undertaking this project, which he calls his swan song to the brilliance of film. One is power–the power of going very, very big. Another is to fulfill a lifelong dream: creating the perfect photograph, which he believes can only be done on film, and only on a scale that is larger than life. And, he wants to pay tribute to our vanishing cultures: Louisiana Cajuns, Native American medicine men, Eskimos in Alaska, the hardscrapple residents of Appalachia, the dwindling numbers of Tuskeegee airmen, the aging medal of honor winners of World War II, and lepers living out their last days in an isolated colony on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. By preserving the images and stories of these vanishing cultures, Manarchy will ensure their place in history before they are gone forever. He has already recorded one such story from an old Louisiana Cajun. Long ago, the man planted 100 trees to celebrate the birth of his daughter. The trees grew and formed a circle. The daughter grew also and years later, she was married within the circle of trees.

The project is fraught with difficulties. For starters, there is no room for error, so no retakes. If a subject moves, or even blinks—pouf, it’s all over. Two days of preparation result in 1/1000 of a second flash exposure. There is only one chance to get it right.

The sheer size of the camera is mind-boggling. Not only is transporting it from one site to another a challenge for Manarchy and his crew, finding film large enough for his purposes took months. Then, there is the question of lighting. On this camera, to get enough lighting set up and having enough power in the lights took him nearly five more months. The ISO is 3 for this camera, so you can imagine how much power and light it takes to make an exposure. The lens starts at F11, and he needs to be F32 to get enough depth of focus. “It needs a ton of light,” he admitted. Even developing the negative is a lengthy process. The darkroom itself has to be about 80 feet long in order to get the enormous trays set up to develop a negative.

For Manarchy none of these factors represents insurmountable difficulties, merely challenges that must be met to realize his dream.

Dennis Manarchy makes no secret of his love for film. “Film has a look to it,” he says, “a classic look that cannot be duplicated. Also, there is a warmth to film that just isn’t there in digital.” This is not to say that he dislikes working with digital cameras. Most days, he is an established commercial photographer who uses digital like the rest of them and finds it exciting. He even admits that digital does some things film just won’t handle, such as “tweaking” imperfections (his last exhibit, entitled Metal and Metal2, was done with digital cameras, and it was a big success). Then, there is the convenience factor. It is much easier to transport a digital camera than a traditional film camera. And digital is very cost effective. It’s possible to get good digital equipment in almost any price range. Like most photographers, Manarchy believes that in time, we won’t be able to tell the difference between digital and film results—but, for now, he gives the edge to film.

What does Manarchy plan to do with the images and stories he captures on his 20,000 mile odyssey into the world of vanishing cultures? Like the concept itself, the outcome will be huge. His team of documentarians will capture the stories of his subjects and record them in educational materials and textbooks.

The photographs and negatives produced from the project will be displayed in stadium-sized outdoor exhibits: Chicago’s Grant Park, the Washington Mall, a New York street gallery… A cinematic version will be made to show in theaters throughout the world and on the internet. The camera itself will be exhibited so that people can learn first-hand learn how it works. They can walk in through the back of the camera and watch the portrait sittings in progress on a large plasma screen. Amazing—simply amazing!

Ready for the close-up

Q. Your Vanishing Cultures project is reminiscent of Captain Kirk and his crew of the Starship Enterprise—setting out to go where no man has gone before. Do you feel like you are an explorer of a new dimension?

A. I’ve always just wanted to create a ‘perfect’ photograph. This is the nearest thing I’ve found. And while I’ve never seen film negatives of this size before, all I have really done is taken the traditional technology of film camera and blown it up to a massive scale.

Q. This project is so big it staggers the imagination. Was it necessary to go so big in order to accomplish your vision?

A. If you have the chance to see one of these images up close you will understand the need for the big camera. I don’t even recognize it as my own work. The detail is so fine that a pediatrician recently told me, “I look at faces all day, every day. I’ve never seen a face in this detail.” So with a big camera, big images and tons of amazing cultures, the entire project wants to be big. This is a magnificent chance to celebrate our diversity on a national (and hopefully global) level. We’re quickly losing these amazing cultures…this is a chance to make sure we capture and document them so everyone can appreciate how different we all are.

Q. Why did you opt to use film for the project in an age when most photographers are going digital?

A. For this project, and at this time, digital just doesn’t have the capability of film. The warmth isn’t there in any scale. And, film has a look to it—a classic look that people love. Film is the only medium for this project.

Q. How do your peers regard this project?

A. Overall, we have had amazing response. Photographers really appreciate the reinvigoration of film…especially at this scale. There are of course some people who think the idea is too off the wall to be feasible, but that’s what makes it fun. One photographer from Australia wrote: [Manarchy] is using a very good quality lens, and refracting directly onto the two metre negative will give a flawless reproduction of the image across every millimeter of a two metre print made from it. The clarity of the image at that size will be unsurpassed by prints made from negatives or digitals that are smaller, or that can be created by any poster process. There have been very large cameras, but have they been ten metres long with two metre negatives?

Q. One writer called Vanishing Cultures a “shrine to a medium in its twilight”. Do you agree with that assessment?

A. I would say it’s an archival tribute to “vanishing” film photography. My hope is to create a massive traveling exhibit that will feature the large-scale prints (24-feet tall), the 6-foot negatives, a stage for cultural and musical performances and the big camera. Ideally I would like to donate the camera to a major museum upon completion of the entire journey and exhibitions.

As news of this exciting project spreads, people throughout the world have asked how they can be part of it. In fact, Manarchy and his crew need your help. A mission of this size does not come cheap…the total project budget of $10 million includes constructing the new version of the camera, traveling 20,000 miles across the country for one year with a semi-trailer and production crew, purchasing the film and lighting equipment necessary to take the photographs, hiring a team of anthropologists and historians to accurately document all of the amazing stories, and create the massive stadium-sized traveling exhibition. This is an enormous endeavor. Manarchy and his associate, Chad Tepley, are currently seeking sponsors and donors at all levels. Please visit their website and read more about Vanishing Cultures. This is a great opportunity to support a project that will define who we were, who we are, and what we will become. They hope that you will add your name to the growing list of supporters.

Dennis Manarchy and Chad Tepley

For the past 30 years, Dennis Manarchy has ranked among the world’s top photographers. He grew up in Rockford, Illinois and is a graduate of the famed Rochester Institute of Technology. He later apprenticed with noted photographer Irving Penn. He served as a lieutenant in the Vietnam War. Following the war, he experienced the post-war disillusionment and anomie common to many veterans. By a strange twist of fate, he met a Lumbee Indian chief at a bookstore in North Carolina. They started talking, and the Chief, sensing the young man’s pain, invited him to spend some time with his tribe. Manarchy accepted, and his life has never been the same. He came to understand the values and culture of the group. He developed a renewed sense of purpose and dignity. And, he returned to an old love, photography. The rest, as they say, is history.

Manarchy has won many awards for photography and commercial film directing. His works are included in many permanent collections including the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the Museum of Modern Art. He is well known in the advertising and film communities and has twice been selected as the Best Photographer by Graphis, a platform for outstanding work in design, advertising, and photography. As his Vanishing Cultures Project would indicate, he cares deeply about history and about the place of real people in history. His work is a testament to that caring.

Dennis is married and has one daughter—both, like him, talented, caring, and very special people.


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One Response to “Featured Filmmaker ~ Dennis Manarchy”

  1. Baldev Dixit on July 31st, 2015 1:33 am

    The page is informative and educative.

About the Author

Shirley Baugher has been a resident of Old Town since 1978. She and her husband Norman lived for seven years in the North Park Condominiums. In 1985, they bought the historic row house on Crilly Court and have been there ever since. Shirley earned an M. A. and Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and has written extensively in the area of American History.


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