Dennis Manarchy is taking his 35-foot camera on the road. But before he embarks on a planned 20,000-mile tour of American subcultures, he’s giving Chicagoans a chance to see the one-of-a-kind instrument in person.
Manarchy unveils the camera—and displays epic portraits of Tuskegee Airmen, Gullah, Cajuns, Navajo, and Ojibwa that he made with prototype versions—in an exhibition that runs Sept. 18-Oct. 13 at Two North Riverside Plaza in the Loop.
The camera is the culmination of a decade-long effort to replicate photographically the level of detail that Chuck Close achieved in his painted portraits.
After 30 years as a commercial and fine art photographer, Manarchy “decided my next project would be documenting American cultures and doing it in the most incredible way I can think of,” he says in a video about the project.
“I said ‘how big can I make something?’… I figured this is the time I have to really roll up my sleeves, dig in, get the welder out and start building a new camera. And the only way to get something this size is to go put your ‘insane hat’ on and try to figure out a way to do it.”
The camera is the centerpiece of Butterflies and Buffalo, a photo and video project celebrating the 200th anniversary of photography, inspired by Edward Curtis’s documentary photo series “North American Indian.”
Manarchy and project director Chad Tepley are seeking sponsors and raising $235,000 on IndieGoGo for a 20,000-mile road trip, carrying the camera on a flat-bed truck with a six-person documentary crew.
The first leg of the tour starts in the Midwest, with portraits of Ho-Chunk tribe of Wisconsin, Chicago blues singers, Eelpout fishers of northern Minnesota, Amish of Indiana, and Holocaust survivors.
Tepley says Manarchy built three prototype cameras from “cardboard, switchboards from Home Depot, a vacuum cleaner to provide a suction plate that held the film intact.” A team of 30 people spent eight weeks constructing the final version, 35’x12’x8’ with steel bellows and a mahogany frame and a 240 lb. lens that produces 6’ negatives.
“We have the ability to build a print that’s two stories tall,” Manarchy says, “with detail that no one’s ever seen before.”