I am not so naïve as to believe that keen interest in the work of minor photographers, even those with artistic ambitions, is not in large measure the product of clever and relentless marketing. However, the current competition (no other word would do in this instance) to sell the work of Mike Disfarmer, a portrait photographer from Heber, Arkansas, takes such strategies to a new heights or depths depending on your point of view.
Two exhibitions of this early to mid-20th century photographer opened the fall season in New York in September, at the Edwynn Houk Gallery and the Steven Kasher Gallery. Two books were also being published in conjunction with the shows.
The fascination with and further beatification of Disfarmer, who died in 1959, focuses on a tried and true critical assessment, that his work is both fundamentally authentic and unabashedly vernacular. But all of this canonization let alone salesmanship wouldn’t have been possible were there not literally thousands of his images, vintage ones at that, newly available to the enterprising dealers involved. Without an ample supply of artifacts, the renewed drive to promote Disfarmer both critically and commercially would have failed from the outset for sheer lack of opportunity.
Prior to this latest rediscovery, Disfarmer’s work was already relatively well-known and celebrated, having been the subject of previous exhibitions and publications as early as 1976. Indeed, Steven Kasher, one of the two collectors responsible for the renewed interest and market, once worked at a gallery that still sells Disfarmer’s prints, but not vintage ones. The Howard Greenberg Gallery owns some of Disfarmer’s glass negatives and has had contemporary prints made from them, but the new trove was made by the photographer himself, always a significant difference both aesthetically and economically.
When news of vintage Disfarmer prints became known to Mr. Kasher and Michael Mattis, another New York collector, the race was on to acquire as many outstanding examples as possible. As it turned out, there were thousands of them to be had because Disfarmer made multiple examples of many of his images of ordinary folk so that several members of their extended families could each own a copy.
The daunting task Mssrs. Kasher and Mattis faced was how to find these pictures, assess their physical condition, and acquire as many of them as they could. As Philip Gefter wrote in the New York Times, to do so Mattis went about it in a particularly imaginative and unique way. He hired local people on the assumption local subjects and owners would be more receptive to their inquiries than those from an outsider, particularly one from the Big City. “He found some scouts by searching for the Heber Springs ZIP codes on eBay, others by word of mouth,” Gefter wrote. These agents required training but soon became quite adept, knowing when to make an offer or pass.
In the end the two dealers acquired roughly 3400 vintage prints, all about the size of postcards. Gefter points out Kasher and Mattis even traded images between them, adding “friendly” to the competition.
The two current exhibitions were culled from these news acquisitions.
What, then, are we to make of the enthusiasms Disfarmer’s work engenders? All of his images are of unimportant people in the grand scheme of things, complete strangers from a strange land that no longer exists, at least not as reflected here, who stare out at us from mostly unassuming poses. Heber, a town of roughly 2000 in Disfarmer’s day, was surrounded by farms. Most current gallery goers will have little if any acquaintance with small town America, especially one in a sparsely settled state. There is nothing quaint about Heber or its residents but there is a quality to them that taps into the current vogue for all things democratic and nostalgic. Physiognomy has literally changed since mid-20th century. Faces today are not nearly as drawn as many seen here; bodies are neither as short nor as slender. Though some subjects mug for the camera, most stand primly, shyly or matter-of-factly, the opposite of today’s more likely in-your-face approach by both subject and photographer.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that a culture such as ours, inundated by reality shows of one sort or another, is starved for artifacts and expressions that were not contrived. And yet the experience of going to a portrait studio is always fraught, at least for the subjects. Ultimately, what gives these images their power is not our expectations of them but the subjects’ conviction that the capturing of their likeness will matter, if not to us, certainly to them and their kin.
Disfarmer, on the other hand, had his own ambitions. According to accounts from some of his subjects he fretted over the lighting, almost always natural, in his bare studio, sometimes taking as long as an hour to position his subjects to his liking. There was little if any small talk or attempt to put his subjects at ease. His focus was squarely on the ground glass under the black hood. Most if not all of his customers were used to such treatment from a man they viewed as eccentric.
Mike Disfarmer, nee Mike Meyer, went so far as to change his name in a move seen as more than a little unusual as far as the local populace was concerned. Surrounded by real farmers, Disfarmer’s nom de guerre was more than ironic. If nothing else, it confirmed what everyone already knew about him; he was sui generis.
Below are links to various sites offering samples of Mike Disfarmer’s work: