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
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.