Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints

by Matt Damsker


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Essays by Edwynn Houk, Gerd Sander, Richard B. Woodward, and Michael P. Mattis. Accompanying an exhibition of vintage photographs at the Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York, from September 8 to October 15, 2005. ISBN No. 1-57687-304-8; Library of Congress Control No. 2005929961; 234 pages; approximately 190 plates. Published by Edwynn Houk Gallery, 750 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10151; phone: 1-212-750-7070, fax: 1-212-688-4848; email: info@houkgallery.com ; website: www.houkgallery.com . Co-published by powerHouse Books, 68 Charlton St., New York, NY 10014-4601; phone: 1-212-604-9074, fax: 1-212-366-5247; email: info@powerHouseBooks.com ; website: www.powerHouseBooks.com .

In the world of portrait photography, the reclamation of Mike Disfarmer's vintage prints might be viewed as something akin to the discovery of the Titanic on the bottom of the Atlantic back in 1986. Less dramatic, perhaps, but no less rewarding than sunken treasure, Disfarmer's prints are among the great art relics of the 20th century. Indeed, coaxing these prints from the private hands of a widespread rural community in Cleburne County, Arkansas, is a triumph for collector Michael P. Mattis, who began the project less than two years ago.

It is also a triumph for New York's Edwynn Houk Gallery, which launches a landmark exhibit of the prints on September 8, and from which this superb book is drawn. Previously, Disfarmer's work had been known only from the glass-plate negatives that had been rescued from his studio in Heber Springs, Arkansas, after the photographer's death. Born Mike Meyer in 1884, Disfarmer--who changed his last name to disassociate himself from the farming community in which he worked, and from his own family--was an eccentric, a virtual hermit, an apparently misanthropic outsider about whom not terribly much is known. But his work tells us that he was an instinctive master of the medium, a portraitist who grasped the power of photography to capture and enshrine, without flattering, the fleeting truth found in a human face.

Importantly, Disfarmer's subjects were the rural poor and modestly middle-class of Heber Springs and thereabouts--the farmers, truckers, workers, and their families whose broad, unassuming faces and diffident postures tell us much about Heartland America in the still-innocent days when cameras were something of a novelty and having one's picture taken was a fairly solemn experience. Most of these prints, shot between the 1930s and the 1950s, document husbands, wives, sons, daughters, siblings and generations of families, and the resemblances so easily scanned from face to face, infant to grandparent, are poignant enough. The many portraits of uniformed men about to ship off to World War II--and in some cases, World War I--are often heartbreaking, as Disfarmer caught the anxiety and unease of small-town sensibility about to be swallowed by the wide, cruel, chaotic world far beyond Heber Springs.

Even so, Disfarmer was no sentimentalist. He posed most of his subjects squarely in front of the camera, gruffly directed them, and took his time, waiting for their features and their limbs to settle into themselves, sometimes startling them with a cowbell or a flash in order to snap them at their most disarmed. His backdrops were a grayish scrim or a white one gridded with dark tape--a Mondrian effect, but nothing really arty--and he was not particularly interested in keeping up with photographic technique, printing from glass plates long after he had to--and on ordinary photo stock. Over the four decades of his work, he barely raised his penny prices, and it seems that he subsisted meagerly, if steadily. He did not network with or befriend his fellow Arkansans--as most small-town photographers had to do to assure themselves a livelihood--but his clientele accepted him and kept him busy, perhaps as something of a local shaman whose ministrations were a rite of passage.

As the essays in this book make clear--especially a fine appreciation by Richard B. Woodward--Disfarmer certainly ranks with the great modern portraitists, from Arbus to Atget, Brassai, Walker Evans, Irving Penn, and Weegee. His work is a key inspiration for Richard Avedon's monumental series, "In the American West," yet it is hard to say whether Disfarmer consciously viewed himself as an artist. There's anecdotal evidence that he thought highly of his picture-taking abilities, and he certainly understood, as Avedon once said, "the smile is a mask." He would not ask his subjects to smile, and so most of the smiling people in his photos are doing so as an honest expression of disposition, which suited Disfarmer well enough. The many shots of sisters, some of them twins, clad in identical dresses, reveal subtle differences of demeanor as unmistakably as fingerprints pinpoint identity. And the psychic distances between people--husbands and wives, parents and children--are often made manifest in the way they awkwardly, and ironically, touch or embrace. Disfarmer's eye was critical, perhaps cold, and so the photographic results evoke compassion in us.

They also affirm that Disfarmer intuited the timeless potential of portrait photography, and had enough technique to set himself apart from all other small-town toilers. The nearly blank backgrounds provide an existential locus against which the hardscrabble stories embodied by his subjects are exuded, unadorned, by their faces and postures. And as Woodward points out, "The luminosity of so many Disfarmer prints is no accident either. His negatives were coated with an orthochromatic emulsion, a film sensitive to the green, blue, and violet parts of the spectrum, and not to red. This lends the flesh of his people a burnished, ruddy tone." In fact, it brings them into a powerful sort of relief, recasting them as icons of a time and place that one man--solitary, strange, and visionary--found a way to immortalize.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.