Photographs That Are Much, Much Larger Than Life

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 15 2012 1:50 PM

A Camera as Big as a New York Apartment

Imagine looking at a 24-foot photograph of your face, created with such detail that if you got up on a ladder with a magnifying glass you could inspect the angles at which your eyebrow hairs were growing. This is what photographer Dennis Manarchy wants to create. Manarchy is bucking the trend towards tiny, discrete digital cameras and Photoshopped perfection by creating a camera the size of a New York apartment. 

Big Camera Gallery Promo

The camera extends 35 feet in length—big enough for the photographer and his assistant to throw a tea party inside it.

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This massive dream camera has not yet been completed—Manarchy is still raising money on Kickstarter, but in the meantime he has been playing with this far less mobile prototype:

This camera requires 4.5 x 6 feet negatives, which are viewed using an actual window as a lightbox. Developing them requires taking a shower in chemicals. But now that Manarchy has finally found film large enough for his purposes, he’s enjoying himself. (As you can see in the gallery above; for a while, he had to piece sheets together).

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“Last night, we were down in the dark room, processing these huge sheets,” Manarchy tells me on the phone. “I’m entirely covered in chemicals, but I’m thinking I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.”

His excitement is evident in his voice throughout our interview. This man who has been making portraits for decades sounds like he’s just discovered a new superpower. And in a way, he has: the power of going very, very big.

“What motivated me was Chuck Close, the painter, whose photo-realistic paintings I almost found more striking than the photos that he was painting, because of the viewing size,” he tells me.

If you blow up a tiny negative that big, the resulting image looks clear and faithful, he says. But then you compare the eyelash in the photograph to an eyelash made with single brush stroke. “It’s like the difference between a paper airplane and a rocket ship and it brings the whole thing to another level.”

Of course, we are accustomed to seeing people blown up big—on the sides of buildings and on billboards. But using film of this magnitude—offering 1,000 times greater detail than the average digital photograph—gives it a different, rather surreal quality, Manarchy says.

big camera chuck close
"Stanley" by Chuck Close at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. (Gabriel Bouys/Getty Images.)

There’s another side to working at this scale (and price), of course. There’s no room for error or for retakes. He makes each person’s portrait exactly once, which requires extreme selectiveness when it comes to choosing subjects.

Who deserves to be photographed in such a way? Manarchy believes members of “vanishing cultures” do. This is the name he has given to the project, and his work with early prototypes has focused on members of groups on the verge of extinction—Holocaust survivors, the Tuskeegee airmen, tiny Native American tribes, remote rural communties. That said, he’s a photographer fascinated by faces, so he’s not opposed to just throwing some “fabulous people of character” in there, essentially because they're  cool.

Manarchy hopes to raise enough money through his Kickstarter project to get the dream camera-RV rig built and then take it on the road. Right now, his prototype is not particularly mobile; to take pictures of remote groups, he’s had to build cameras on location. In a swamp in Louisiana, he turned an old fish house into a camera, after spending several days fishing and hanging out with the Cajun community. Surprisingly, perhaps, his slow, on-site method did not prompt any particular skepticism, he says. What would have left them truly alarmed, he believes, is if another photographer had suddenly arrived, snapped 1,000 quick photos and then sped away.

Heather Murphy is a former Slate photo editor and the creator of Behold, the Photo Blog. Follow her on Twitter.

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