Photographing Vanishing Cultures With a Huge Camera, Hoping for an Even Bigger Impact

By Alyssa Landry, Indian Country Today Media Network

Dennis wants to photograph people in their home environment, which means he needs a big truck. (Vanishing Cultures Project)

Dennis wants to photograph people in their home environment, which means he needs a big truck. (Vanishing Cultures Project)

A two-story-high photograph of Joe Yazzie towers over the viewer—every scar, wrinkle and hint of emotion on his face magnified. That face, larger than life, is the very essence of a Navajo man caught between traditional and modern worlds.

Yazzie’s portrait will greet the curious who come to see what promises to be the largest photo exhibit in history—not in terms of the number of photos, but in the size and resolution of those photographs.

Chicago-based photographer Dennis Manarchy is making photographs that dwarf most other prints: at 24 feet tall and with a resolution of 97,000 megapixels, he hopes each portrait will tell the story of one of America’s vanishing cultures.

“We’re going to start the exhibit with my portrait of Joe Yazzie, who is Navajo,” Manarchy says. “When you walk into the exhibit, you’ll see Joe. Your head will be smaller than his pupil. As you approach, you will be engulfed by him.”

That “total cultural immersion” is what Manarchy has in mind for the exhibit, which has been in the works for 12 years. “You’ll remember this for the rest of your life,” he says.

Manarchy plans to unveil his supersize, traveling exhibit, Vanishing Cultures: An American Portrait, by 2014. The exhibit space, which will be about two-thirds the size of a football field, will show America a snapshot of itself, Manarchy claims—a snapshot taken before some of the most precious and endangered cultures in the country deteriorate further.

“Portraits are powerful,” he explains, “but they are so much more powerful with stories. In America, there are essential cultures that are vanishing. The people aren’t vanishing, but the cultural identification is vanishing.”

Take Yazzie, for example. Born near Gallup, New Mexico, he attended boarding schools in which he was forbidden to use his native language. After boarding school, he relocated to Chicago, then was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. In the process, Yazzie lost much of his Navajo culture. “When you leave your culture, when you’re very young and you move to the city, then when you go home, you don’t fit in,” Yazzie says. “You miss what you were supposed to be, what you were supposed to learn from your parents, your grandparents, the medicine men.”

Yazzie (Dennis Manarchy)
Yazzie (Dennis Manarchy)


Yazzie married an Italian woman after his wartime service. His two sons had little interest in the Navajo culture, and his 8-year-old grandson has no knowledge of it. “We are losing our tongue, our songs, our culture, our heritage,” he says. “It will not be brought back.

“This project is really about a face that’s going away soon,” Yazzie says. “They’re saying, You better get to know this face because you’ll never see it again. And it’s not just the face, but the story behind it.”

The portrait of Yazzie, 70, a graphic artist in Chicago, represents one of 50 cultures Manarchy hopes to capture on film during a year-long journey that will take him from the Inuit people in Alaska to the Cajun communities in the swamps of Louisiana. The project will include about a dozen American Indian tribes, many of which are experiencing loss of culture and language at alarming rates as the younger generations move to cities.

Manarchy is focusing on cultures that are intact and represent an important chunk of American history. His itinerary includes stops among the Amish of Pennsylvania, railroaders of West Virginia, cowboys of Idaho, motorcyclists of South Dakota and blues women of his hometown of Chicago. Tribes on the itinerary include the Chickasaw and Shawnee in Tennessee, the Comanche Nation in Texas, Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, Hopi in Arizona, Navajo in Utah, Northwest Indians in Washington, Blackfoot in Montana, Cheyenne in Wyoming, the Inuit in Alaska and the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Manarchy and his team plan to stay for a week or two each in 25 to 35 locations, shooting portraits of people representing 50 unique cultures that are being swallowed up or homogenized.

“The purpose of the project is to go to the home environments of different cultures,” project director Chad Tepley says. “Most of these people won’t travel 10 to 15 miles from their homes in their lifetimes, so it’s really important to get the camera to them.”

Manarchy, a commercial photographer with decades of experience, is looking to tell the stories behind every photo, and to preserve cultures with the biggest snapshots he can manage. For that, he insists he needs a big camera. His will fit snugly inside a semi-trailer and produce negatives that are six feet tall.

He also plans to produce documentary films and other educational materials about every culture he encounters. The finished exhibit will include portraits, filmed footage, the negatives and the giant camera itself, which weighs about one ton. “This will be a powerful educational tool,” Tepley says. “It will be a visual social studies class with videos of the cultures. It will be a very powerful way to show children what’s out there.”
The exhibit will be particularly poignant when it comes to teaching children about American Indians, Tepley says. The federal government recognizes 566 American Indian tribes today, though many children grow up believing tribes are the stuff of history or folklore. “They are not aware of the role these people played or the true perspective of how tribes have evolved,” Tepley adds.”

During the planning of the project, Tepley and Manarchy researched tribes to pinpoint the ones whose cultures were most intact. They enlisted help from an advisory committee, including members of several different

Chandra Brown, Gullah Geechee (Dennis Manarchy)
Chandra Brown, Gullah Geechee (Dennis Manarchy)

American Indian tribes who are offering cultural advice and will introduce him and his camera to Native communities.

By its nature, the project is bringing various cultures together, says Wendy White Eagle, Ho-Chunk, a project advisor. “I think the conversation today is more important than ever about how everyone is connected,” she says.

Although the exhibit will preserve the cultures as they are being expressed now, the project is not meant to discount future generations who will continue to celebrate tradition. “The world is evolving, not [so] much vanishing,” White Eagle says. “There are people coming behind them, and the expression of the culture might be different, but the core values might not be.”

Opening day of the exhibit still is about two years in the future. He is raising money to pay for the journey, which he estimates will cost more than copy7 million—he and his team hope to embark on the 20,000-mile, cross-country expedition by spring. He will spend a minimum of one year traveling and shooting, then at least six months editing before his exhibit opens in Chicago. Manarchy hopes to have 500 to 600 giant portraits to choose from when setting up the exhibit. He knows that each portrait will tell a story.

“All we really have is our stories,” says Nora Lloyd, Ojibwe, another advisor for the project.

Lloyd, who also posed in front of the camera, praises the project because of its ability to preserve history. She does, however, have some trepidation about seeing a 24-foot-tall reproduction of her face. “Dennis is doing a huge service by preserving things that people otherwise would never hear about, and in an enormously dramatic fashion,” she says. “A face with wrinkles and imperfections makes more interesting subjects. It really does show the essence of someone.”