Photographer builds world's largest camera to mark end of film age

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Meg Jones/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Thursday, November 14, 2013

MONROE--Dennis Manarchy is a big picture kind of guy.

The professional photographer from Chicago isn't ready to let go of film. So he built his own camera.

In an age when cameras fit into back pockets and pictures are exchanged in moments through the Internet, it might seem like film cameras are going the way of the dodo bird. But Manarchy's vision is quite a bit bigger.

His camera is 35 feet long and 12 feet tall with a 300-pound lens. The photos are larger than life—actually two stories tall. The negatives are 6 feet long.

“The whole thing is meant to be a wonder,” Manarchy said in a phone interview.

The gigantic camera is on display outside the Green County Courthouse in Monroe through Sunday. It's in this small community known for cheese and beer because the company that custom-made the trailer and helped construct the camera is based in Monroe.

Manarchy plans to haul the camera around the country to take photos of indigenous cultures, including American Indian tribes, and record American cultural history. He said Wisconsin will be on his two-year itinerary. Manarchy is now raising funds—his goal is $3 million—for his travels to photograph Americans.

“There are quintessential people of fading cultures that are so beautiful. The faces are just gorgeous. We're going to make them huge so you can sit and look into their eyes and get a sense of who they are,” said Manarchy.

It took a couple of years for Manarchy to organize the design and construction of what he's calling the world's largest film camera. He prints the photos using an ink jet printer with a high-tech scanner in sections for a high resolution. The whole thing is then printed on 161/2-foot by 24-foot paper rolls.

The project was spurred by the upcoming bicentennial of the invention of the camera and the end of the film era. The reason he built such a big camera was to create buzz for the project and to use a machine that will produce works of art.

If the current top-of-the-line digital camera has about 60 megapixels, Manarchy's big camera will produce the equivalent of almost 100,000 megapixels.

“Conceptually, it's the clearest image that anyone has ever made,” said Manarchy. “It's sort of the swan song for film for me. As the film goes away, we set a marker down—OK, this is what film can do. At least we have the highest, greatest representation of what film can do.”

The camera weighs 7,000 pounds. Manarchy contacted dozens of companies to get a custom trailer made, but everyone turned him down until he called Davis Welding in Monroe.

Davis Welding makes custom pigeon racing trailers, attachments for skid loaders and other equipment, in addition to repairing and maintaining agricultural equipment for local farmers. The small company had never made a trailer for a huge camera before. Which was not a problem.

“He called and said, 'I need a trailer with 7,000-pound capacity,'” said office manager Kelly Bartels. “I need it 30 feet long, 81/2 feet wide. I just need a platform to put a giant camera on and take it all over the world. I said, 'Yeah, we can do that.' He's like, 'Are you kidding me?'”

Bartels' husband, Mike, constructed the trailer, and her brother-in-law Nick Bartels did the sandblasting and custom paint job last summer. They also helped install the bellows of the replica vintage accordion-style camera. As they hauled the camera from Chicago to Monroe earlier this month, they got quite a few double-takes from motorists agog at the sight of a humongous camera rolling down the interstate.

“We saw one guy, we could read his lips as he said slowly, 'What is that?'” recalled Kelly Bartels.

The camera also is creating quite a bit of traffic to Monroe's pretty town square, where the camera is parked in the courthouse parking lot not far from the community's statue of Cpl. William R. Hawkins, one of the last soldiers to die in the Civil War.

Manarchy attended an open house when the camera arrived, an event that drew several hundred people, including camera buffs, photo enthusiasts and folks attracted by something quirky and unusual, said Noreen Rueckert, Green County tourism director.

This week on a chilly sunny day, Mary Kay Zemlicka focused her Canon EOS Rebel T2i on the world's largest camera and snapped her shutter.

“It's kind of odd taking a picture of a camera,” said Zemlicka, who grew up in Monroe. “Where they'll develop the film, I'm just not sure.”

Last updated: 6:30 pm Thursday, November 14, 2013

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