“Photography has gone to hell,” laments Dennis Manarchy. As a professional photographer who has been working with A-list clients since the 70s, he’s well aware of the trends and technology that have influenced photography over the past five decades. “Technology is great, but it’s ruined photography because there’s no credibility anymore,” he states. As artists and photographers adopt innovations of the 21st century, Manarchy holds a keen interest in honoring the medium of traditional film-based photography.
On a recent visit to Manarchy’s impeccable, imposing studio in an industrial section of the neighborhood loosely defined as River West, Dennis and I sat down over coffee and croissants to talk about “Vanishing Cultures: An American Portrait,” his current project. In a large kitchen with an oversized dark wooden table that gives the place the cozy feeling of a farmhouse, there stood two enormous black-and-white prints. The face of a stately elderly man looms out at us. He looks to be in his 80s, maybe even 90. He’s wearing a military jacket adorned with stars and bars. The print is four and a half by six feet, so large that each eye is larger than a baseball. The negative, equally enormous, hangs on a C-stand in front of a glass block window. This portrait is one of thirty-five that Manarchy has made so far for this series.
“There are several events that are coming to a confluence in the next couple of years: the 200th anniversary of the camera, the end of film, and our vanishing cultures,” Manarchy explains. “Some of the cultures are obvious, like the age-related [groups that are] vanishing, like the World War II heroes.” Manarchy relates the story behind the proud, elderly face that is a quiet yet strong presence in the kitchen with us. “This guy right here was a Triple Ace; he shot down 28 planes it was total, in the Second World War. He was finally shot down himself and the Nazis executed him. He woke up from his coma in a pile of dead bodies while a grave robber was going through his stuff, and then they re-captured him and sent him to a hospital-prison type of thing, and there was a Jewish doctor who was in secret that found out they were going to execute him again, so he helped him escape. Now that’s one man, one story. Isn’t that inspiring?”
Yes, it is inspiring. The power of the large visual and the details of the heroic story make a captivating combination. It’s clear Manarchy is driven by his moments of connection with his subjects and wants to participate in the storytelling. “The faces are so fabulous, you know, and their stories are tremendous. Here’s a chance for us to take a snapshot of our country before it’s too late, because at some point, everything will be the same, everybody will be wearing the same stuff, everybody will be eating the same food,” he predicts. While this robotic level of homogenization is hard to picture in a city like Chicago with its strong ethnic neighborhoods, it’s true that clothing and food brands are becoming omnipresent. “We just [photographed] an Ogallala Sioux Indian Grass Dancer who happens to be a checkout guy at Wal-Mart, for his day job, that’s the reality of it.” As much as elders want to hang on to traditions and pass them down to the next generation, the youth want to assimilate, as they always have. “Here’s a chance for us to collect what arguably would be cultures that probably will not be around in 10 years,” he points out.
“Vanishing Cultures” is a big concept with multiple aspects that Manarchy wants to bring forth. When asked about his original inspiration, he explained his fascination with the paintings of Chuck Close: “As a photographer, I was never able to achieve the photo-realism at the size [Chuck’s images] were. Each eyelash was a stroke. It wasn’t broken up into pixels or grain. We weren’t able to achieve that with a little negative, a couple of inches. I experimented and finally got to a size that gave me that photo-realism.”
Massive prints, the equivalent of two stories, will be made from window-sized negatives that are exposed in a room-sized camera. (The 35-foot camera/room has a standard door on the front – just turn the doorknob and enter.) The camera will travel across the country on a flatbed truck. Manarchy wants this project “to allow me to interact honestly with people. It’s not something that’s tweaked and art directed and retouched and so forth.” His vision for the “ultimate manifestation” of the project is an exhibition of pure, unretouched, black-and-white portraits standing tall along the Reflective Pool at the Washington DC Mall. “It’ll be a Cirque du Soleil kind of thing coming in, it’ll unfold, and 30 prints will be up there. There will be a band shell for cultural music, the camera will be there, [with] all kinds of culture within the exhibit.”
“This is the swan song of film,” Manarchy believes. While he has adopted digital image making into his professional practice, he also acknowledges its shortcomings: “Digital is great. There’s nothing wrong with it, [but] all of the software that keeps getting invented makes it look less like pictures.” Because of that, he claims, “Nobody trusts it.”
After our talk and a quick tour of the studio, I came face to gorgeous face with a 12-foot high portrait of a young girl. The appeal of this larger-than-life image is mesmerizing. There is a sense of hyper-real because of the fine, clear detail in each eyelash and skin pore. “Nobody believes any pictures anymore,” Manarchy emphasized. I think he’s right, but if his “Vanishing Cultures” project is realized, he just may change that.
Written by Mia Wicklund 4.5.12