The Colossal Camera that will capture Vanishing Cultures

Vanishing Cultures – An America Portrait, The Foundation for the Preservation of American Culture


 One photograph, no retakes, no retouching, just a pure honest photograph and a giant camera that will travel 20,000 miles across the US to photograph American Cultures. Vanishing Cultures is an astounding and completely unique concept; Dennis Manarchy the creator of this ambitious and simply brilliant project, has already embarked on a 10-year journey to bring this incredible project, together. Through endless trial and error, 3 prototype cameras, over 30 test subjects and a whole lot of agony and frustration, it is finally nearly completed. This one of a kind monumental camera will be transported by a huge truck trailer, due to it’s extremely large size. His aim is to capture cultures that are rapidly fading from society and to feature their portraits on 2-story sized prints displayed in stadium-sized traveling outdoor exhibitions along with the amazing negatives and the stories behind the people and cultures.

The type of quality that these gigantic negatives produce is unmatchable. The negatives are 6-feet by 4.5-feet. No digital camera in years to come will be able to compete with this clear crisp quality and tremendous detail. This project is taking it back to the fundamentals of photography and making sure that people realise the beauty of film photography. To understand more about how this project is going to work, take a look below, as I had the great pleasure in having a video conference with Dennis Manarchy and Chad Tepley (Dennis’ Project Manager on Vanishing Cultures ) the other day, where I was able to see the third prototype camera as well as going virtually inside it! This is what they had to tell me about this mind-blowing project:

Film’s not Dead: Why such a big camera and where did this idea evolve from?  

Dennis Manarchy: You really want to know the answer? Can you handle the truth! As I grew up in photography I was an apprentice in New York to Irving Penn, and in living in New York you make a sort of pilgrimage to the Museum of Modern Art, every time there is a new exhibition. One day I was going up excited to see the new exhibition, as I came up to the second floor, which was the painting floor, I saw this amazing photograph that was 10 feet tall. It was clearer and more brilliant than anything I had ever seen in photography. I thought it was a photograph, but it was actually a photo realist painting done by Chuck Close. As I sort of thought about that and compared it to other photographs I started realising that the reason why this thing was so powerful was because at the 10 foot size, it was literally 1:1.

There was no break, there was no enlargement or deterioration. Even though we think photography is clear, it just looks relatively clear to compared say a painting, but it is not really clear. I have always wondered why couldn’t I get that power from a picture, why didn’t that picture become the icon like the painting was? It’s  just that the photograph is lost during the enlargement. I have always been fascinated by large sizes. I didn’t know how to answer the question I had of how to produce a photograph like that…. I kept thinking about it and then one day I met some guy who had made a 20×24 camera, which was the largest thing I could have ever imagined, but you couldn’t do a portrait with it because you couldn’t get bellows long enough for it. They used these cameras for landscapes but the problem is going to portraiture with these large cameras is the unusual bellows of blowing something up three or four times life size. The bellows on our camera are, 25/30 feet. Just imagine trying to make something like that. It is very complicated.

Someone explained to me that the word ‘camera’ is the Italian word for ‘room’, I said ‘wow that is interesting’. I had a room that was about 15 feet square, so I decided to put a lens on the door and that kind of worked, and this became the first prototype. A few years later I realised I couldn’t do a portrait with that as I didn’t have the right lens. It took me literally three years looking at 100’s of lenses to find one that worked, I finally found one. Then I took and made a prefab collapsible studio camera and went down to the swamp in Louisiana to photograph Cajuns. There was an old fish house that I changed into a camera. We stayed for a few weeks photographing these native people, and the results were just fabulous, but that’s where it stopped. I thought that this was so kukoo, it is great for me as I was able to achieve something personally, but I didn’t think it would go anywhere and  I hadn’t thought about taking it to the next level. Then a couple of years ago someone was over and they freaked out when they saw these shots. Film’s vanishing and so many cultures in the US are vanishing. I realised that if film is dieing and if it is going to be buried then somehow I want to leave the greatest tribute to the medium by doing this. I want to pay a tribute to photography, as I have been in photography in the years before Polaroids, that’s when you really had to look at someone to photograph them. But when Polaroids came in it was about looking at the Polaroids rather than the subject, then digital came in then it was about looking at the screen. Photographers had lost their tails.

I have a friend who is a brilliant photo realist painter but his paintings suck! He doesn’t look at the people, he looks at the pictures. If I am photographing you then I want to know something about you. I have to make an impression. It is not just a snap. I need to bring to life the stories, the joys and frustrations of your life in one shot. When I am taking these pictures I only have one exposure per subject, so I really have to get everything right. This is what is so cool for me is that my adrenaline is so pumped. Altogether it takes about 2 hours to set the subject right for the one exposure.

When I am photographing I try and get you away from the intimidation of this huge machine. I say to you ‘hey lets go back in time and think about a little secret or something that was really interesting to you, and put that in your thoughts’, so when I finally make my exposure there will be something about you. Whether it is obvious or not, the point is that it is real, and it is not just an architectural copy of your face.

Film’s not Dead: What is your background in photography?

Dennis Manarchy: I’ve been a photographer for the past 30 years, and I have done everything from commercial ad campaigns to private exhibitions, but I’ve always had a love for portraiture. I grew up in Rockford, Illinois and then graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology. I apprenticed with Irving Penn and served as Lieutenant in the Vietnam War. I was a little messed up when I returned  from the war. After I got back to the US I met a Lumbee Indian Chief in a North Carolina bookstore. He invited me to stay with his tribe and it was an amazing experience. It allowed me to adjust back into society while I refocused on my photography.

Chad Tepley: Also over the past 30 years Dennis has consistently been ranked among the world’s top photographers. His work is part of permanent collections within the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. I’ve known him for about 4 years and I’m amazed not only by his talent but also his ability to relate to people and their situations. I think this is what is obvious when you look at his photos…. he’s definitely the kind of photographer who can pull off a monumental project like this.

Film’s not Dead: Is Dennis the only one who will be operating the camera?

Chad Tepley: No, Dennis will be on the outside of the camera working with the subject and setting the lighting. There will be another person inside the camera working with the film, adjusting the focus and operating the controls. The two of them will work together via radio headsets until Dennis has achieved the perfect moment with the subject and he will click the button to expose the film.

Film’s not Dead: Where will the tour of the camera start off?

Chad Tepley: We will be visiting at least 30 various locations/cultures. Our itinerary will be refined once we fund construction of the new camera. We will work with historians, anthropologists and cultural organisations e.c.t in order to collect a wide variety of destinations. We hope to begin the trip in Chicago since this is the place where it all began and our hope is to conclude the trip prior to the 200th anniversary of the camera in 2014 so that we can donate the camera to the Smithsonian as a tribute to film photography.

Chad Tepley: Tell her how many exposures you have taken with the big camera?

Dennis Manarchy: 30.

Chad Tepley: Yet the thing that really blows my mind is that none of them have been screwed up!

Dennis Manarchy : Somehow amazingly enough they all come out perfectly. I take a lot of time to get everything perfect. On this new camera, to get enough lighting set up and having enough power in the lights has taken me at least 4-5 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 I need to be at about F32 to get enough depth of focus so it needs a ton of light. Even developing the negative is a lengthy process. The darkroom itself is about 80 feet long in order to get the trays set up big enough to develop a negative. But the whole objective for this project – apart from the technical aspect – is having a vehicle for the art and I never want to lose that point because a big picture of something boring is something boring. A little picture of something fabulous is something fabulous. But if you have the aesthetic right then it all comes together. The sharpness is unbelievable and this quality cannot be achieved with our tiny cameras. 

When you bring these pictures up and you feel the weight of them you see the hair follicles the pores on the skin and the weight of an eyelash. I was worried that it would be too gross, but it is pretty, it is real and that’s the idea of this project. With photoshop and with digital there is nothing real. I understand why they are banning photoshop in England because people don’t believe anything any more, it is all phony. How many pictures have you seen of anybody that haven’t been heavily retouched? With everyone’s pictures on places like Facebook they can all give themselves a new face-lift. This camera is absolute reality and the closest we can get to reality through the abstraction of the camera. There is just nothing there that is not completely honest about the person, there is no retouching and the imperfections become beautiful as they are so magnified. Due to the sharpness they become more iconic and all those things put together make this thing really rock. It’s like nothing I have ever seen before. I look at my own negatives and I can’t even recognise them. I look at these pictures and I can’t be objective about them because I am really moved by them, which never happens with my work. Nothing is ever good enough for me, but this is different. This isn’t about being good, it’s about being so clear, so honest. The search, of course, is finding such great faces, and that’s why it is has to be on the road because you have to go to where the people are. Our Native American tribes, for example, are very isolated and a lot of them don’t travel. Their beauty is there, unlike the city where everyone blends in. There is none of that there.

Film’s not Dead: How long are your exposures? 

Dennis Manarchy: The exposures are done electronically, but it is 1/1000th of a second, and the subject sits in the chair for a good couple of hours. But the bigger camera that I am going to build will be shorter, maybe a hour. But there are a million little things that I will analyse to make a good portrait of this person. Many of the pictures people do now are un-lit with natural light, but because this has to be more focused the light has to be so intense. So I have to be very precise where I place the light. While I am doing all off this, I really try to engage the subjects by asking them to share stories with me. One of these was when I photographed an 80-year old Cajun man and I asked him, ‘What is the craziest thing you have ever done?’ He said, ‘When I was 65 and I was out in the fishing camp I saw a deer I was so excited, he was 10 feet away from me and I ran after him, but I didn’t know what I was going to do because I had no weapons or anything and I actually caught the deer and wrestled it to the ground.’ At 65 years old! Where would you hear a story like that?

The other part to this whole project is that we will be shooting documentaries of this process, sharing these people’s stories as well as displaying their stories in a book. Even in the exhibitions you don’t want to just find faces without depth. I always go for the eyes first, if I can’t find anything in the eyes first then I don’t find someone a good subject.

Film’s not Dead: How or where do you get the film made?

Dennis Manarchy: It is specially made for this camera.

Film’s not Dead: How is the project exactly going to be funded?

Dennis Manarchy: We are currently looking for funding through individuals and corporate and foundation sponsorship and we will be launching our funding campaign on February 1st. Please keep an eye out for it because we will have some great rewards (t-shirts, posters, prints, e.t.c) in return for donations of various levels. We have also aligned with PBS as our Fiscal Sponsor and we will be working closely with them on the documentary aspect of the project.

Film’s not Dead: How did you and Chad meet and come together on this project? 

Chad Tepley: I am a commercial real estate broker here in Chicago, and I was working with Dennis on his property and we started talking about his vision for Vanishing Cultures. I told him that I had done a lot of traveling and volunteer work internationally and that I have a real interest in cultures and history. When he started talking and telling me about what he wanted to do I was immediately drawn to it. Then when I saw the negatives from his prototype I was totally blown away. I love art, I love photography, but this is something special. Not only does it shed light on our diversity as a nation, but it presents the faces of our people on a totally different level.

Film’s not Dead: How many people are actually involved with this project such as processing the negatives, building the camera, printing the pictures?

Dennis Manarchy: Right now we have about 12-15 people but we will have 30-40+ once the project really launches. We want to fund the production of making the new camera, which will cost about half a million dollars. That’s our first priority. Then we will focus on the trip and production of the images/documentaries. 

Film’s not Dead: Where do you see this project going in the future?

Dennis Manarchy: There really is no limit to where this project could go. Once we make it happen here we would love to take it abroad. It’s the type of exhibit and project where every single person will have some unique tie to the people or the cultures, so it’s of interest to everyone at some level.

Film’s not Dead: Will you hold talks inside the camera and workshops within it?

Chad Tepley: Yes the camera’s construction will allow it to literally open up with hydraulics, so that people can walk through and view the inside while we are not shooting. We will engage the local communities while we travel and will hold regular workshops to display how the camera works.

Film’s not Dead: Where are you going to develop the negatives when you are on the road or where will they be stored?

Chad Tepley: No we will be storing them in large tubes until they can be transported back to the studio for processing within our darkroom.

Film’s not Dead: How do you select and find these people?

Dennis Manarchy: We want to pick a wide variety of cultures. For example there are hundreds of American Indians, Native American’s but there are a few that are traditional, with traditional clothing and that have their ceremonies with their dances. They are the more interesting cultures, they have preserved they culture. Another example are the Cajun’s in Louisiana; their dialect is so interesting and they are from a French and Native American background, they’re interesting looking, they have wonderful speech patterns, and they have a unique culture in the swamps. How they live hand and mouth, it is not going to be there very long. We want to bring attention to these cultures and many more. 

We want to concentrate on cultures that are vanishing hence the name. We want to bring attention to them, such as photographing World War II Veterans are another unique group. There are a lot of cultures vanishing due to their age, but there are also cultures vanishing because they are not compatible with todays society. It is not a downer, it’s about celebrating their customs. It is about the beauty of these people. This work is pure film and the closest we can get to reality. For this project you have to go back to the basics of what a photograph is literally and pre-visualise what these pictures are going to look like. Unfortunately with new technology that we have people just look straight at the screen because it is instant gratification. If you weren’t able to look at the screen and you just had to work with your own talents, then it becomes an internally different process, and that’s what’s so beautiful about film. 

Film’s not Dead: How long will it take you to build the new camera?

Dennis Manarchy: 4 months – with about 50 people working on it.

Chad Tepley: The end result will be a 24 by 16 foot prints (that’s over two stores tall), that will be displayed in stadium sized traveling outdoor exhibits along with the cultural celebrations, ethnic foods, music performances and the stories behind these amazing cultures. Examples of venues would include The National Portrait Gallery and National Mall in Washington D.C, Millennium Park in Chicago, Central Park in New York City, e.c.t. 

To find out more about this astonishing project or to get in contact with Dennis or Chad, then please click HERE. If you would like to see more of Dennis’s compelling work please click HERE. To show your support for this amazing project please click HERE to make a pledge on Kickstarter.



Updated:July 29, 2019