MONROE — A gigantic camera that uses 6-foot by 4-foot negatives is only the beginning for Dennis Manarchy.
The Rockford, Ill., native likes to think big and deep. That’s why he parked the 12-foot-high, 22-foot-long, weatherproof box camera — thought to be the largest working camera in existence — outside the Green County Courthouse in Monroe, the city where the camera went from an idea to a head-turning realization.
While the camera has become a subject for those with smart phones and point-and-shoot digital cameras, Manarchy’s ultimate goal is to tow the film camera around the United States on a custom-made trailer to take detailed portraits of people in 50 cultures and turn them into 24-foot- tall prints.
His 20,000-mile journey dubbed “Butterflies and Buffalo, Tales of American Culture,” coincides with the 200th anniversary of the first photographic image. The project is to include the production of documentary films, television features and books. Ultimately, he’d like to have a permanent museum to showcase his work, perhaps in Las Vegas or the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
In a time of increasing homogenization, Manarchy said he will take his camera to the far reaches of the country to capture and preserve the unique cultures of the United States.
“That’s why the camera is mobile,” he said by phone from his home in Chicago.
Manarchy, 69, is one of the most influential photographers in the world. He has won awards for his advertising work for Nike, Porsche, Apple, The Gap and Harley-Davidson and his 2009 book “Metal” and its follow-up a year later, “Metal2,” won gold from Graphis, the international journal of visual communication. His creative work includes photo essays of cowboys, the homeless and nudes.
Now, armed with his massive camera, he wants to photograph Native American tribes, including the Ho-Chunk in Wisconsin, wheat farmers, migrant workers, cattle ranchers, Appalachians, fisherman in Maine, blues musicians in Chicago, Holocaust survivors and mountain men in Idaho.
Pending funding, he’d like to start his travels in February in Savannah, Ga., the heart of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The Gullah and Geechee are descendents of enslaved Africans from west and central Africa who have maintained many aspects of their African culture, including the language.
“One of the things you find in these cultures is that even though they may be poor, or something like that, they have such pride in what they do,” Manarchy said.
And it’s that spirit and work ethic that ultimately led Manarchy to build his camera in Monroe. The area is home to not only artisan cheesemakers, farmers and the country’s second oldest brewery, but also versatile manufacturers. A big camera, you see, needs a big trailer to haul it.
In May, Manarchy had made phone calls to more than 15 trailer manufactures around the country, all of whom couldn’t or wouldn’t do what he was asking.
That is, until he placed a call to Davis Welding, a Monroe company that makes custom trailers and attachments for skid steers such as utility buckets, hay bale movers and feed pushers. The company, founded in 1982 by Patrick Davis, also repairs farm machinery and does stainless steel and aluminum welding and machining.
Kelly Bartels answered the phone when Manarchy called and asked for a 35-foot long custom trailer for his bigger-than-life camera.
“I said ‘That’s fine. We can do that,’ ” Bartels recalled. “I just could not contain myself. I thought this is the coolest project I ever heard of.”
Bartels’ husband, Mike, did much of the work on the trailer while Bartels Sandblasting and Restoration, owned by Mike’s brother Nick and father Irv, also donated labor and material for the trailer’s painting and custom letter work. The project included hoisting the trailer 8 feet into the air with a forklift so Nick and Irv could paint the underside.
“The underneath was painted as beautifully as the top was,” Manarchy said. “That’s the quality of the people you have up there working on this. That’s why I feel so connected to Wisconsin. I expected to get hung up on.”
The camera was built in pieces in varying places and assembled in Monroe this summer in 95-degree heat. About $400,000 in metal work for the lens was done gratis by a Chicago metal company while the metal bellows of the camera were cut by Direct Water Jet in Union, Ill. The bellows were then covered with vinyl at Davis Welding, which donated labor and work space.
The wood on the camera is African mahogany, which Manarchy said normally costs $30 a foot. Manarchy found a batch that a Chicago lumber yard let him have for $5 a foot.
The film for the camera comes from Europe. When he first started working on the project a few years ago with prototypes, a roll that can take 15 to 18 photos cost $2,000. It now costs $25,000 a roll. That’s one of the reasons Manarchy needs to raise about $3 million before he hits the road.
“He’s high energy, incredibly creative and thinks outside the box probably 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Kelly Bartels said. “He is so passionate about things that he does that it’s impossible not to catch that.”
The camera had been on display in Chicago’s Riverside Plaza from Sept. 18 to Oct. 31. It is at the Green County Courthouse on the city’s square through Nov. 17. There’s also a photo exhibit in the historic third-floor courtroom and, outside, a 24-foot-high photograph draped over the west side of the building.
“He’s trying to capture detail in the face,” said Nancy Rudd, 63, of New Glarus, a former professional photographer who came to see the camera last week. “I wouldn’t want to be photographed by it.”
But that’s the idea of the camera, to show not just every nook and cranny of the face, but the soul.
Manarchy’s camera has the digital equivalent of 97,000 megapixels, which is about 4,600 times larger than the Canon camera State Journal photographer Mike King used on this assignment.
Subjects sit on a chair mounted at the front of the trailer. Manarchy expects it to take more than hour to photograph someone, a big part of that time used to make them relax and forget about the truck-sized camera a few feet away.
Bill Kuenzi, 72, a retired school teacher from New Glarus, came armed with his pocket-sized digital camera to capture Manarchy’s out-sized camera. Kuenzi was blown away.
“I think it’s beautiful (and) well made,” Kuenzi said. “What do you measure it against? I have no comparison.”