The world’s largest film camera, designed by photographer Dennis Manarchy, is being displayed alongside large-scale portraits as part of a project documenting the diverse cultural heritage of the USA. At 35 ft long, the camera is capable of producing 6 ft long negatives, and 24 ft high portraits in sharp, super high-res quality. This national artistic documentary project, Butterflies & Buffalo, plans to take a 20,000 mile journey in order to record the vanishing cultures of America.
Despite being traditional in design and function, as the largest film camera in the world, the device is capable of producing images with over 1000 times more detail than the most advanced digital cameras around today. It will travel on a large trailer across the USA in order to capture the portraits of individuals from a variety of cultural backgrounds, including Native Americans, Amish, Cajun, Appalachians, Gullah-Geechee, and Blues artists, amongst others.
“We have the ability to make a print that is two stories tall, with detail that no one’s ever seen before,” says Manarchy. “The crystal and the clarity of these things in these super large forms takes these people and gives them a certain level of dignity, but also puts it on an epic scale. You look into their eyes and you can feel something, and people look special. It’s a story that no one’s heard before.”
Growing up in New York, Manarchy trained as an apprentice with photography legend Irving Penn, and has since worked as professional photographer for the last 30 years, with projects ranging from commercial ad campaigns to private exhibitions.
After serving in the Vietnam War and finding the return to civilian life an anxious experience, a chance meeting in a North Carolina bookstore led him to take up an offer from a Lumbee Indian chief to live with the tribe for 6 months in order to help him readjust and refocus on his photography. Added to his continued love of portraiture, the deeply rooted appreciation for the rural cultures of the United States he gained during this time, have been greatly influential with regards to his work and the Butterflies & Buffalo project.
The project was also inspired, in part, by the documentary journey of photographer and ethnologist Edward Curtis, and the large scale photo-realist paintings of artist Chuck Close – Dennis wanted to both capture the vanishing cultures of America, and pay the greatest, and largest, tribute he could to photography and film cameras.
“There is a beauty and honesty to film that cannot be replicated.” says Dennis. “It’s the purest form of the art. It’s delicate, sensitive, raw… and the process requires absolute precision. But once that image appears and you witness the results of all of the effort, it’s then when you remember why you shoot with film.”
The ISO is 3 for the camera and lens starts at F11 and goes up to F32 to get enough depth of focus and enough light to produce the images, and the darkroom is 80 ft by 50 ft, to allow room for trays big enough to develop the negatives. Each requires a 5 gallon bucket of developer fluid, with the trays being spring mounted allowing for a delicate movement that shifts the developer across the tray. These negatives are then scanned at high resolution, and printed on high quality canvass, 24 ft by 16 ft, by a specialist who can accommodate the large size.
The whole photographic process has to be exaggerated on a grand scale, and up-close the resulting images capture all the minute, intimate details of the human face. Hair follicles, pores, veins, and wrinkles become vividly and beautifully magnified, and untouched by photoshop, these extremely sharp, high-contrast, black and white portraits tell stories of the diverse heritage of a multitude of cultures, many of which are evolving, and some of which are being lost.
Alongside the portraits, which are currently on show in downtown Chicago, at 2 North Riverside Plaza, the exhibition presents the camera along with video documentary footage, which in time will grow should the project receive the funding it requires to travel to planned locations. It will be in Chicago until 31 October, and will then make its way to Monroe, Wisconsin, where most of it was constructed. “By documenting the unique faces of America’s rich culture in larger-than-life clarity we are recording the legacies of our country,” says Manarchy. “This is only the beginning of our cultural journey and I’m thrilled my hometown gets to experience the beginning of this documentary project.”
Although there are no firm plans to bring the camera overseas yet, if funds allowed, project director Chad Teply has high hopes. “If we had our way this camera would continue a journey around the world to document cultures from every part of the globe.”