Dennis Manarchy: Master of Modern Photography

“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is in one word, effective.” – Irving Penn

Currently on exhibition at the phenomenal Hilton|Asmus Contemporary Gallery (owned by Arica Hilton and Sven Asmus) is photographer Dennis Manarchy’s “Butterflies & Buffalo Part II: An American Portrait” (now through August 23).

Carving out a career in photography with élan and urbanity, Dennis Manarchy’s oeuvre is extraordinary. With a remarkable range of awards (including the much-coveted CLIO) for his work on campaigns for such noted clients as The Gap, Nike, Harley-Davidson, Porsche, DiorApple, Kodak and Panasonic, along with published works in Vogue, Vanity Fair and Time, Mr. Manarchy’s talent spans nationally and internationally. Here in Chicago, a permanent collection of Mr. Manarchy’s work is curated at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (600 South Michigan Avenue). Additionally, Mr. Manarchy has published award-winning books including En Passant, Metal and Metal 2.

Growing up in the Midwest, Mr. Manarchy hails from Rockford, Illinois. He studied out east at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and trained under the tutelage of Irving Penn, legendary photographer of the 20th century.

On being raised in Rockford, Mr. Manarchy shares, “When kids grow up on the wrong side of the tracks, they have a few options other than jail or pumping gas. Some play sports and some go into the arts depending on the opportunities. I had an uncle who was a medical photographer and he gave me a way out. My other option was jazz, but older friends were already strung out on drugs. So I picked up a camera, did some studying and shot a portrait series of Italian immigrants that won a college scholarship at RIT.”

He continues, “Somehow I graduated from RIT. I have always had trouble following rules, which is why art seemed good, but professors tend to go with the establishment and for me it was a battle from the beginning. I remember a line from Batman where the joker says, ‘I am nobody’s pawn in nobody’s game,’ and that is what art has to be. Rules are only made to be broken.”

Upon graduating from RIT, Mr. Manarchy landed an apprenticeship in New York City with Mr. Penn and in Mr. Manarchy’s words, “Penn was the greatest photographer, ever.” Asked how living in NYC shaped his career, Mr. Manarchy responds, “While I lived in NYC, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was my second home along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One day while riding the escalator up to the third floor (photography) at MoMA, I passed a giant black and white portrait on the second floor – it blew me away. It was the most impactful portrait I had ever seen. But upon closer inspection I discovered it was actually a painting by Chuck Close. It held up so well at 10 feet because it painted that size. Unlike a painting, a photograph just falls apart as it gets bigger. This started my obsession for the dynamic at least in a latent sense.”

For years Mr. Manarchy visualized the concept of the largest film camera in the world that could produce colossal portrait photographs. On the design of his 35-foot camera, Mr. Manarchy shares, “Throughout my career I created larger and larger formats until one day I just went for the largest possible, which is what I ended up with. This camera was finished about six months ago, although it took many years and three prototypes to get here. I have taken them on several trips, the most interesting of which was the Atchafalaya Swamp Basin to photograph the Cajun culture. At that juncture I realized that the camera had to be mobile since most of these people there had never been more that 50 miles from where they were born.”

When asked about the camera along with its uniqueness, Mr. Manarchy says, “No one, to my knowledge, has come anywhere near producing a camera of this stature due to the impossibility of this whole concept. If I wasn’t obsessed and absolutely goal oriented, I couldn’t have done it since nothing like it actually exists. When you see a 24-foot portrait with this camera you realize that there is nothing gratuitous about it. It is total function since the perfect enlargement is three times the diagonal of the negative, which is about seven feet. A physicist from Denmark figured out the capture. It is the equivalent of about 97,000 megapixels or 1,000 times greater than any other.”

Mr. Manarchy’s principle métier is photography that exhibits creativity extending far beyond the average. His latest enterprise, “Butterflies & Buffalo: Tales of American Culture,” isn’t just an exhibition; it proposes to document American Cultural History with a 35-foot camera, via a 20,000 mile trip around the U.S., covering more than 50 cultures, beginning with the Gullah Geechee in the Low Country and South Sea Islands off the Carolinas – a culture of freed slaves who still speak their African language.

Mr. Manarchy’s savoir-faire will see this project from start to end, beginning with the one-of-a-kind design and construction of the 35-foot camera, photographing and documenting the subjects, printing the work, and eventually settling in a permanent museum (location is to be determined…see photos of the museum’s conceptual design below).

Such vagary is characteristic of a genius. Mr. Manarchy describes how his thoughts developed over the years, “Dreams, nightmares and the over a billion images we see during our lifetime have formed in my psyche. The one thing I try not to do is to go to galleries…too much. It is important that my ideas are original and come from within my understanding of the world as I develop them. There can be a sensory overload for an artist out there, which is dangerous to your subconscious.”

Dennis Manarchy Photographs « Architecture by John W. Clark, Cordogan Clark & Associates



About Cindy Burns

Currently writing for TCW's 'Woman About Town' column, Cindy Burns covers Chicago's social scene, events, fashion, and interviews women and men who are making a difference in the world. With an M.A. in American History from DePaul University, Ms. Burns is an author, freelance writer, avid reader and researcher. Ms. Burns has spent over 20 years serving on charitable boards and organizations, and currently serves as a member of the Women's Board of the Joffrey Ballet and the Women's Auxiliary Board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicago. She is also an Honorary Member of the Children's Service Board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital. When Ms. Burns isn't running around Chicago covering current events, you can find her biking, on the tennis courts, or hiking in a mountainous region of her choice.