Today’s Millennials take the “selfie” snapshot and the immediate sharing of it on Instagram for granted. For them to imagine the lengthy, intricate processes of portraiture required at the birth of photography in the mid-nineteenth century—is, well, impossible.
One of the first photographers to move out of the studio confines and take his camera out into the world was Roger Fenton, who along with his assistant Marcus Sparling was commissioned by Queen Victoria to document the Crimean War of 1853-1856. Fenton’s mobile darkroom was a converted wine delivery wagon. The demanding wet collodion process he employed was, however, a major advance over the metal plate, direct positive monotype of Daguerre and the paper negative/positive print technique of Fox Talbot, the Calotype. Fenton worked in the Crimea only a few months-- but returned to Queen Victoria in June 1854 with over 350 14”x18” glass plates.
More than a decade later Carleton Watkins employed a camera that exposed even larger 18”x22” mammoth, dry glass plate negatives for his work in the Yosemite and other Western wilderness areas. And beginning in the 1890s, Edward Curtis launched the most ambitious photographic venture ever seen. He spent 35 years creating a 30-volume set of portfolios and books preserving the history, language, culture and photographic portraits of the vanishing Native American people.
It is in the Curtis tradition that Chicago based photographer Dennis Manarchy has set himself the goal of a multi-year odyssey, traveling back and forth across America to photograph not just Native Americans but other ethnic people and enclaves that are quickly being lost to an ever more monocultural America.
Early in his career Manarchy apprenticed to Irving Penn, an artist widely known for his fashion photography but who earlier had himself traveled the world with a portable studio to record indigenous peoples in his ambitious series “Worlds in a Small Room.”
This far-ranging project was an outgrowth of Penn’s even earlier body of work in London and Paris titled “Small Trades.” A Getty Museum exhibition of Penn’s full figure "trade" portraits was one of my earliest blogs in October 2009:
Dennis Manarchy and colleagues built a prototype of a super large format camera, and began work to prove its viability, also raising money on a Kickstarter campaign. The camera, which he calls “The Eye of America,” rests on a custom-built flatbed hauler built by Mike and Kelly Bartels.
The camera was designed by Matt Binns, who is also project co-coordinator. The camera and hauler is 35 ft. long, 8 ft. wide, and 12 ft. tall; it weighs 7000 lbs. The camera opens at the front to reveal an easel that supports a film negative measuring 6 ft. x 4.5 ft. For close-up portraits, a chair rests on the hauler a few feet in front of the lens, built by Tony Beyer and Tek Pak.
The lens alone weighs 250 lbs; the focal length marking on the inside front reads f=1070mm. The normal focal length lens for 35mm. stills portraiture is between 85-135mm. (Given the size and expense of such a large format film negative, Manarchy insists he makes only a single exposure per sitter.)
The ambitious scale of Manarchy’s venture is presented in a promotional quote:
“Butterflies & Buffalo” [the project title] is a groundbreaking photographic, educational and historical tribute to the American cultures that have helped to shape our nation – those which are thriving and those which are vanishing before our eyes. The power and scale of these images will bring a voice to individuals who ordinarily would not be heard, and it will raise awareness on a vast array of social, economic and environmental issues.
Manarchy’s eight-minute YouTube video outlines the project’s goals with a poetic introduction: “We are all flashes in time.” It is photography that preserves us.
In the video Manarchy exhibits prints that are two stories tall (24x16ft.) hanging from public buildings. He claims that if the film negative resolution were expressed in digital terms it would be 97,000 megapixels. The best available digital camera, he claims, is about 60 mega pixels.
Manarchy reveals that when still a student, visiting MoMA in New York City, he saw a Photo-Realist painting of composer Philip Glass made by Chuck Close. Its huge scale inspired him to explore doing the same in photography.
Although not on as large a scale as Manarchy, there are also the side by side portraits of Mark Laita who already has created a far-ranging body of photographic portraits—a project he calls “Created Equal,” a sardonic title for these contrasting images of multi cultural, multiracial Americans
Dennis Manarchy is his own best project pitchman. His ambitions are as large as the images, even embracing plans for a mammoth exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. In an 18-minute Chicago TEDx talk he offers a thumbnail sketch of his life: from early struggles, to much-lauded commercial photographer, and on to his present project of “American Portraits.” Manarchy’s informal, fringed-jacketed, plain talking presentation is a fascinating ramble through the edges of the history of portrait photography, as well as a compelling defense of the continuing viability of FILM.
He argues for the primacy of photography as an instrument of social and political change, nailing his thesis with Eddie Adams' photograph of the chief of police of Saigon executing a Vietcong prisoner during the 1968 Tet Offensive, a photograph Manarchy asserts “ended a war.” It would be easy to make a case that an even more disturbing photo from the same time by Nick Ut, was at least as influential.
Manarchy also cites the “dark lady of photography,” Susan Sontag, an intellectual critic of photography, and her citation of photography as mere momento mori. Rangy and discursive in his talk, Malachy skips over many ideas worthy of separate TedTalks. Finally, he offers his proposal for a visionary, interactive exhibition.
Some of what Manarchy dreams of creating is only conjectural, maybe even quixotic. I’ve not been able to find out the current status of his grand project: traveling tens of thousands of miles with his camera and trailer to document fifty endangered cultures; one thing for certain, like his oversize camera, Manarchy has Whitmanesque ambitions. It is interesting to speculate whether Edward Curtis—were he working today, and who unlike Manarchy, was a very private man—might have used Kickstarter or YouTube to promote funding for “The North American Indian” project, rather than going hat in hand to a Wall Street mogul like JP Morgan
Anyone who has current information about the status of Manarchy’s venture please leave a comment.
Dennis Manarchy says that as humans “it is the flaws that distinguish us.” What more detailed and enduring record of those physical traits can there be than his extraordinary “light catcher” camera, preserving for successive generations the last rays of fading cultures: that is, if he succeeds?