The Picture Show
1:00 pm
Fri March 2, 2012

As Film Fades, Photographer Makes A Huge (Huge) Statement

Originally published on Fri March 2, 2012 12:03 pm

Photographer Dennis Manarchy has taken the idea of large-format and ... enlarged it. To make his portraits, Manarchy goes inside a 35-foot-long camera. He uses a 6-foot-tall negative. And to process the film, he says, "you gotta get really nasty."

The result, he says, is the "most unbelievably beautiful thing you've ever seen in your life."

Granted, he's biased. And I haven't been to his Chicago studio to see the portraits he's already made — but can only imagine the spectacle and resolution of a negative that large.

This may not be the world's largest camera. There was one behemoth in 1900 that used wet plates. In 2007, Guinness recognized a project that used an entire airplane hangar as a camera (though that was more of a camera obscura). There's also the "camera truck," self-described as the "world's biggest mobile camera" — but that's also a pinhole.

Manarchy's contraption might be the world's largest film camera with an actual lens. But no matter. Point is: It's huge.

What's the motivation? For one, he's anticipating the camera's 200th anniversary in a few years. As revolutionary products like the Lytro emerge from the ashes of Kodak's film, Manarchy calls this project "a swan song to the brilliance of film."

That nostalgia seems to permeate his psyche. Manarchy has not only built a shrine to a medium in its twilight, but he has also chosen a specific subject matter: He calls it the "Vanishing Cultures" project, and the endeavor is as big as the camera:

According to Manarchy and his Kickstarter page, which he is using to raise money, these are the goals: Raise a paltry $10 million; build a brand-new camera; travel a mere 20,000 miles across the country making portraits; get Washington D.C.'s prestigious National Portrait Gallery to display the photographs, which can be expanded, without Photoshop, to the size of a building; donate the camera to the Smithsonian. Easy peasy.

And for now, it's just a side project. "When I started doing this," he says, "I had no idea that anyone would care about it." Most days of the week, Manarchy is an established commercial photographer who uses digital like the rest of them.

But he'd rather be on the road. Manarchy gives a few examples of what, in his mind, constitutes a "vanishing culture": Tuskegee Airmen (America's first black military airmen), American Indian tribes like the Havasupai, and Holocaust survivors. But he seems to keep the idea of a "vanishing culture" open to interpretation; the next person he plans to photograph is James Lovell, commander of the Apollo 13 mission.

It's no doubt ambitious and still developing conceptually, but Manarchy seems optimistic that this pipe dream with be actualized. "It's a cool idea, it's big and crazy," he says. But beyond the shock factor of scale and cost, Manarchy seems committed to the idea that this is a final ode to film and to other cultural treasures that may soon fade with it.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.