In the true Chicago spirit of “make no little plans,” acclaimed director/photographer Dennis Manarchy has built what is unarguably the world’s largest still camera to capture people in “cultures in transition.”
The American Portrait, as he calls the camera, is a 12-ft. high by 8.5-ft. wide by 35-ft. long brass-and-mahogany replica of an old-fashioned bellows camera.
Its purpose is backed by a dream that Manarchy calls “Butterflies and Buffalo.” He plans to journey through the most genuine of American cultures that are on the verge of disappearing and preserve them in two-story high prints, “to leave a legacy.
“I decided that the camera, having so much nuance, is the perfect way to show American culture, because with a normal looking person, you can enjoy their face because it’s photo realistic. It’s surreal.”
Thousands of hours in the making
An acclaimed commercial director for decades, Manarchy started building the camera 17 years ago, with a team of filmmakers, riggers and welders, off and on, going full steam ahead the last three years.
They spent thousands of hours fashioning chunks of raw material into a device that, according to a Dutch physicist who analyzed one of the negatives, captures 97,000 megapixels per image.
The lens alone took 1,000 hours to construct. The mechanism that captures the images is a vacuum film holder the size of the 54×72-inch negative.
Manarchy makes his prints in a special dark room in the basement of his studio, using huge pieces of film from a company in France. He gets a roll of film from 100 to 300-ft. long, loads it into a big loader that rolls the film onto a hand-made cutting machine and cuts it into 72-inch pieces.
Manarchy’s first trip with the camera, which travels in a modified farm trailer hitched to a Dodge 1500 V8 pickup, was down to Louisiana. “When you’re driving the camera through town… it’s just amazement. People love it.” The startling appearance adds to “the whole spirit of the project,” which, Manarchy says, “is to make it interactive.”
In Louisiana, he photographed Dewey Patene, a 65-year old Cajun man who outran a deer, wrestled it to the ground and tried to kill it with a little thumb knife. “The deer knocked him out,” says Manarchy. “They found him in a field laughing when he woke up.”
Since then, he’s shot a handful of portraits in his Chicago studio and displayed the camera and several of the images at Riverside Plaza for a month last fall. He agreed to bring some of the massive works to Schaumburg’s Trickster Gallery this spring.
The American Portrait, the end of the film era
But these are mere preludes to the real journey, which he plans to launch from the South Sea Islands of South Carolina and take all the way to Alaska as soon as soon as the project receives adequate funding.
The amount of funding is rather vague; Manarchy refers to “a couple of million dollars” as a possibility. But when the funding is in the bank and Manarchy and crew set off, “It will be the last major film project in history,” he claims, “literally the end of the film era.”
Watch “Butterflies and Buffalo” on Reel Chicago’s YouTube channel.
Video credits: Arturo Cubacub, DP/editor/VFX/sound design; producer Cathy Cascia; art director, Peter Van Vliet; music, Molly Manarchy; project exhibit coordinator, Jules Tomko and Essanay Studio & Lighting; video production, Frank Hanes and Big Shoulders Productions; videographers Zac Osgood, Paul Incapreo, Pat Prater, Brian Jajik, Bill Laing, Jon Tichota, Jon Gorzyka, Matt Hacker and Garrick Peterson; designer, Bill Sosin.