Becoming Disfarmer

Back in 2003 I tidied up my notes on a studio photographer who had been unknown outside his home town at the time of his death in 1959 but whose remarkable work had been discovered, published and exhibited in the 1970s. It seemed surprising to me at the time – fairly close to his death when many who had known him were still living – that apparently rather little was known about the man – Mike Disfarmer – and what there was seemed rather strange. Perhaps there was in some an interest in making him out to be a true eccentric – as had been done with Atget until further research gave us more facts. In part it seemed good marketing and it was perhaps getting in the way of many seeing his pictures for what they were.

As usual my own writing wasn’t based on any original research, but on what I could glean from a number of magazine articles and internet sites, and I made no claims to originality other than possibly in my comments on the work. And perhaps I could claim to have looked at the pictures more carefully than many, and with a photographer’s eyes.

It was a piece that at the time led to considerable interest, and I got comments and e-mails from a number of people, including from Julia Scully who, together with Peter Miller had written about and first published his work, and several others closely involved.

In some of the e-mails I was sent other pictures that Disfarmer had produced, that had not at that time been published elsewhere. The pictures we all knew in 2003 had all come from a batch of glass plates that had been saved by a former Mayor of Heber Springs after Disfarmer’s death and were then discovered by Miller and were a relatively small part of his output – a few years from his around 45 years life as town photographer. None of them were actual prints made by the photographer, who had only made prints for the clients he had photographed; his prints were on the walls and in the family albums of people living in Heber Springs and the wider area of Cleburne County.

The Disfarmer Project was launched in 2004 after New York photo collector Michael Mattis was offered a family collection of fifty prints made by Disfarmer by a young couple who had grown up in Heber Springs. He set up the project to find as many vintage prints as he could using people from the community to visit local homes, working with the local Cleburn County Historical Society. They unearthed well over 3000 photographs. A chapter from the book Disfarmer, The Vintage Prints “Disfarmer Rediscovered” on ASX shows some of the range of his work over 40 years.

At times there seemed to be some friction or competition between the Disfarmer Project, who market prints from the Miller collection of glass negatives and other collectors of original Disfarmer prints (and it was something I became at one point peripherally involved in, though I write as an outsider), with each laying claim to being concerned with the ‘real’ Disfarmer. But all seem to be cooperating in the new official Facebook Page.

But things are not all sweetness and light, as Chelsea Spengemann, art historian and curator of Becoming Disfarmer, currently showing at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York State until March 22, 2015 found. In a Time Lightbox feature Spengemann talks about how she wanted to go beyond the myths and put the published enlargements into the wider context of the vintage contact prints made by the photographer for his clients. Two collectors who had been working with her withdrew their prints from the show a week after the catalogue was printed as they objected to her choice of lesser known – and in some cases damaged prints. Half the show had to be replaced and the catalogue reprinted. Disfarmer is now big money for some and they don’t want their investment damaged.

According to the museum press release, Becoming Disfarmer includes “examples of his restored and unrestored vintage prints made between between 1925-1950, enlargements made posthumously from 1976-2005 from his glass plate negatives dated 1939-1946, as well as audio clips, historical journals, newspapers, and other ephemera.” The show also features some pictures with inscriptions on fronts and backs showing their function as “intimate family keepsakes“.

I’ll perhaps look out my article on Disfarmer and make it available here again, so long as it doesn’t seem to need much alteration.

One Response to “Becoming Disfarmer”

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