Monday, February 2, 2009

Dissing Disfarmer

Last Wednesday I went to see the production of "Disfarmer" at the St. Ann’s Warehouse. It is a puppet theater piece conceived, directed and designed by Dan Hurlin. I am no theater critic, so I will only say that there was a New York Times review that I basically agreed with and a Variety review which I basically didn't. The draw for me -- and what I'm perhaps more qualified to speak about -- was the history of photography implicit in the play. Another reason I chose to go on the night that I did was the panel discussion which was scheduled at the end of the evening.

The panel was composed of four people:
  • Philip Gefter - moderator. Writer on photography and former NYTimes staff.
  • Peter Miller - the man who found and bought the original cache of Disfarmer glass negatives
  • Julia Scully - was the photo professional to whom Miller first showed the negatives
  • Brian Wallis - Chief Curator at ICP
Mr. Miller and Ms Scully both seemed to have a position about Disfarmer that allowed no room for questioning of his genius status. Mr. Gefter, though mostly objective in his role of moderator, seemed to agree with this position. Mr. Wallis, though stating his affection for the work, was nearly shouted down when he offered some other, less laudatory perspectives on the work. All in all, I found the panel much too weighted in the direction of those who had a vested interest in Disfarmer's mythology.

So this leads me to a question has been nagging at me lately: Why do I have such a viscerally negative attitude toward the photography of Mike Disfarmer? I mean, ordinarily I think I would like work that looks like this. I'm a big fan of vernacular and "non-art" photography, and his faux-objective style is right up my alley. Add to that the almost taxonomic picture of his native Heber Springs, Arkansas and it would seem that his work points beautifully back to August Sander and forward to artists like Diane Arbus and Walker Evans.

So what's not to like? Well the first thing that comes to mind is the hype. There's lots of hype. There's hype about his lone genius story. There's hype about the rarity of his images. There's hype about the prices his work can command, and there's hype about what effect his work has had on following generations of artists. Lots and lots of hype. I'm skeptical about most of it, and it damn near kills any pleasure I can find in the pictures themselves.

I believe Mike Disfarmer was a talented and interesting photographer from a relatively remote spot in America. His style has more in common with the itinerant tintype makers (of which he probably saw many examples) than with August Sander (of whom he was probably unaware). The flat pose, the simple makeshift backdrop, the natural light all seem to be a natural cousin of the earlier, traveling, rural tintype maker or perhaps other locally based portrait makers. So what is the difference between Disfarmer and these other artists? Inventory.

I would like to posit a slightly different scenario. Let's say Mike Disfarmer lived exactly the life he lived and took the photographs he took, but only a fraction of them survived. Let's say 40 pictures; enough to see a body of work, an artistic perspective, and an idea of the small town life he was outlining. But not enough for multiple dealers to sink their teeth into. For this we need enough inventory for multiple exhibits, books, clients, collectors and museums. If there weren't enough inventory to make this kind of a business enterprise, do we believe that all this fuss would be made about Mike Disfarmer? I do not. Mind you, I'm not saying he was a better or worse artist for having more pictures survive. I'm only saying the hype around him would have been different because there was less business to be done. I agree with those who say that there are many, many examples of fine, interesting, and personal portrait photography by local American photographers; we just don't have the cache of their work to make a larger case.

I also take issue with the idea that he was a huge influence on modern photographers. Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand, et al. all had a defined style long before they could have ever seen Disfarmer's work. Walker Evans certainly didn't. The Southern Gothics mostly didn't or at least not before their mature style was already achieved. Richard Avedon says the work influenced his "In the American West" series. I have become so mistrustful of anything this master self-promoter says, that I cannot believe anything except that he saw an opportunity to hitch his wagon to a hot moment.

This is all to say that I wish there could be a more balanced and objective view about Disfarmer's opus. I'm sure there are those who are passionate about his work that could give reasoned and principled rebuttal to all of the points I have raised. I think that's wonderful. Art makes us ask questions, right? So if the gift Disfarmer gives to me is to force me to ask questions and look more carefully, then he has met his artistic mission in a big way. Still, I have been looking at his work for years now, and the cries for his exalted status still ring empty for me. Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm more and more convinced that, without the hype, something isn't there.


  1. You are looking for a balanced and objective view of the Disfarmer opus. Could we start with one from you? That is, a view of the work rather than the market and hype around it.

    I find the lack of affectation in the images, the lack of pretension in the style and the lack of any artistic objective by the photographer to be some of the images' strengths. Generally portraits are showing an agenda of the sitter or the photographer or both, and these seem to be as independent of those concerns as you can get. Things sometimes become "art" when they are viewed from a different perspective, of time and ploace, even though there was no original artistic agenda. There is strength in the Disfarmer images' simplicity and the way they give a view on the small town inhabitants of the time. I can revisit the images repeatedly and feel new insight into the humanity and life of he subjects in a way that I find rare in other photographic portraiture.

    Robert Ashby
    (flickr: rastar)

  2. Thanks for sharing! Collectors such as yourself may give hope beyond hype. Btw if curious, check out - would welcome your thoughts.

  3. "Richard Avedon says the work influenced his "In the American West" series. I have become so mistrustful of anything this master self-promoter says, that I cannot believe anything except that he saw an opportunity to hitch his wagon to a hot moment."

    You know he's dead, right?

    Anyway, I enjoyed this. Interesting point about the "inventory" fueling the hype.

  4. Mr. King--

    Thank you for your post. I had indeed heard that Avedon is dead, though he was such a great PR guy, perhaps he has figured out some way to convey the thought from beyond the grave.

  5. Mr. Ashby--

    Thank you, too, for your personal and reasoned comments on my post. As I mentioned at the end of the post, I imagined that many would disagree. That is good news -- I believe the art is only good if it inspires reflection and dialogue.

    To return the thoughts a bit: Though I did offer a few views of my own on Disfarmer, that was not the point of my post. I wanted to address the marketing of him more than the fact of his work. I agree with you that they paint some kind of portrait of Heber Springs, and I agree that they have a "lack of affectation in the images, [and] lack of pretension in the style".

    I have to disagree that they lack an artistic objective or agenda. Disfarmer put his camera behind a wall with a hole for the lens so the sitters would not know when the shutter was released. I would call this at the very least an artistic objective. Additionally, his outsider status in the community and his own hostility to the local culture calls into question any objective distance. I believe he was hiding the moment of the shutter release so that he was free to portray the locals in any way he saw fit. They had to sit and squirm for an indeterminate amount of time so that Disfarmer's chosen moment (flattering or not) could be captured. I would call that an agenda. It doesn't change the value or enjoyment of his work in my mind, but I think it's important to note that he was extremely purposeful in his process and in capturing the theater of the moment.

    In terms of a balanced and objective view from me -- I don't think I am capable of providing one. I am neither a photo historian nor a photo expert. My passion about the subject combined with my heretofore negative reaction to the circumstances of his exhibition would certainly take me out of the running for a balanced label, and I feel objectivity comes with much more historical perspective than I now possess. I offer my comments in this blog as fodder for discussion or to point the way for others to find art I am passionate about. Usually those passions are positive, sometimes they are negative. Between the positive and the negative, I do try to maintain a balance.

  6. Evan, This is an interesting and provocative take on Disfarmer. I find it refreshing to hear a dissenting voice challenge the status quo, especially when armed with valid questions.

  7. You forgot the weird self-applied name.

    If he called himself Steele or Simpson, his pictures would probably still be stuck in a cupboard in the Heber Springs Historical Society

  8. Hey Mr. Atherton--

    Thanks for your comment. Are you suggesting that Disfarmer was also investing into his own hype or that he had a sense that his narrative would play out better if he did a quirky name change? My own sense was that he was a genuinely unusual, if not actually crazy, person. The details of his craziness have certainly been seized upon by many, but I can't quite get my head around the idea that he did any of it for posterity. Perhaps that's what you mean. Care to clarify?

  9. Thanks for a great post-- While I have had some of the same reservations regarding Disfarmer-- I think your point about there being enough photos to turn him into a commodity is absolutely true-- I do think there is something truly distinctive about his work. If you compare it to something like the LaPorte, Indiana book which came out a few years ago which featured the work of another small town photographer (albeit later in date) there's a huge difference in quality. While I've certainly come across plenty of 1930s portraits at flea markets that are "Disfarmer-esque," I've also seen enough to know that he had to have played no small part creating in the awkwardness and unease that is present in so many of his photos. Whether this was an aesthetic decision or just the product of his attitude towards his subject is another question entirely but in spite of that (and perhaps in part because of that) his work remains compelling to me.

  10. Great comment, SA. While I object to the hype, the most important thing to me by far is whether or not the work speaks to people. I believe passionately that any work which has touched so many people and spurred so much discussion has real value. So, your comment that the work has remained compelling even after years of looking at other similar work is at the core of the discussion. Even if it doesn't work for me, I'm happy that it's honestly speaking to others.

  11. Thanks for your thoughts. Where did you find out about Disfarmer's camera set up? I didn't know about that. I have the Palm Springs book from 1996, but it doesn't seem to be mentioned there. It certainly would seem that he was not "artless" if this was his method, as you say.

    Robert Ashby

  12. Mr. Ashby--

    I heard it from the curator of a museum that has a large holding of Disfarmer photographs. I don't know the curator's source and i didn't check it. Even without the wall, oral histories of his sittings paint a picture of a man with a very defined idea of how is sessions would be run. The sitters never knew when he would trip the shutter and they knew he would only offer them the single picture he took; no retakes unless you paid for another picture. We don't know whether this was an artistic process or curmudgeonly quirk, but in either case it was planned and not spontaneous.

    I will ask the curator if they can credit their source for the story of the false wall with the camera. If I get a good answer, I'll email you.

  13. this has been SO interesting! thanks for all this information!

    What camera did he shoot with, do you know?

    1. I have a photo of it it looks like a Kodak III fold out with an altered lens. Well there's a whole other story about that lens. That was his outdoor camera. I also have a photo of the lens pieces

  14. Mr. Mirapual maybe you should have a talk with me. I started this whole mess in 2004 when I found vintage prints laying around everywhere in my hometown Heber Springs. We never heard his name but we had the vintage prints. That's when I found the older post cards P*nrose And Meyer so I started collecting them

  15. I didn't think anyone wanted to hear beyond the hype but I started the whole mess in 2004 here in Heber Springs when I realized we had all the vintage prints. Over the years I pieced together hundreds of his early works hoping someday someone would want to study them as I did. I have a lot of the answers to your questions but the panel discourages listening to anything I have to say or show them