Native Village 
Youth and Education News

April 1, 2013

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

Condensed by Native Village










Joe Yazzie, Navajo

A two-story-high photograph of Joe Yazzie towers over the viewer. Every scar, wrinkle and hint of emotion on his face is 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 people attending the largest photo exhibit in history. "Large" doesn't mean the number of photos, but the size and resolution of those photo.

Chicago-based photographer Dennis Manarchy is making photographs that dwarf most others. At 24 feet tall and with a resolution of 97,000 megapixels, he hopes each portrait will tell the story a vanishing culture.

“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.

“You’ll remember this for the rest of your life,” he says.

Manarchy plans to unveil his exhibit, "Vanishing Cultures: An American Portrait," by 2014.  This supersize, traveling exhibit --about two-thirds the size of a football field -- is a snapshot of America before some of our most precious and endangered cultures 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.”

Chandra Brown
Gullah Geechee

Take Yazzie, for example. Born near Gallup, New Mexico, he attended boarding  schools that forbid him to use his native language. After boarding school, he moved 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 married an Italian woman after his wartime service. His two sons had  little interest in the Navajo culture; his 8-year-old grandson has no knowledge of it at all.

“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.”

During a one year journey, Manarchy and his team plan to stay for 1 or 2 weeks in each of 25 - 35 locations.

“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.”


His travels will take him to:

Inuit People, Alaska
Cajun communities, Louisiana Swamps
Amish, Pennsylvania
Railroaders, West Virginia
Cowboys, Idaho
Motorcyclists, South Dakota
Blues Women, Chicago
Chickasaw and Shawnee, Tennessee
The Comanche Nation, Texas 
Taos Pueblo, New Mexico
Hopi , Arizona
Navajo, Utah
Northwest Indians, Washington
Blackfoot, Montana
Cheyenne,  Wyoming
Inuit,  Alaska
Sioux, Pine Ridge Reservation

Cajun from the Atchafalaya Basin, L

To produce such huge snapshots, Marachy needs a big camera. His fits snugly inside a semi-trailer and produces 6 foot tall negatives. He hopes to compile 500-600 portraits.

He'll also make documentary films and other educational materials about every culture. The finished exhibit will include portraits, film, 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.”

Although the exhibit will preserve cultures as they are expressed today, the project does not discount future generations who will continue to celebrate these tradition.

And in the meantime, by its nature, the project is bringing various cultures together.

 “I think the conversation today is more important than ever about how everyone is connected,” says Wendy White Eagle, Ho-Chunk, a project advisor.  “The world is evolving, not [so] much vanishing. There are people coming behind them, and the expression of the culture might be different, but the core values might not be.”


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