Between 1915 and 1959, American studio photographer Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959) made portraits of the residents of Heber Springs, a small town in rural Arkansas.
Only after his death did his work become known internationally and regarded as a typical example of classic American portrait photography. Foam is staging a major retrospective, with 182 vintage photographs, including a number of 8 x 10 inch prints that have never been exhibited before.
Disfarmer started life as Mike Meyer, one of seven children born to a family of German immigrants. In 1914 he and his mother arrived in Heber Springs. Along with George Penrose he ran a photographic studio for a while, called Penrose and Meyer. Their portraits were typified by the poses and props that were usual for photo studios of the time: arm in arm, or leaning on a small table placed on an oriental carpet against a background of romantically painted cloudscapes. This changed not long after Disfarmer set up his own studio in the main street of Heber Springs. The atmospheric settings were replaced by a black backdrop, or a white backdrop with a vertical black stripe. This gives his portraits a less nostalgic, more contemporary feel.
Disfarmer’s clients were a cross-section of the population of Heber Springs: farmers in overalls and housewives dressed up for the occasion to soldiers in uniform, high-school football players and children in their Sunday best. He documented women whose husbands had been sent to the front in the First or Second World War, and he photographed the farming community during the Great Depression and in the more optimistic 1950s.
Disfarmer’s way of working was straightforward. He positioned his models directly in front of the camera, against a simple background, and had them look right into the lens. The effect is a focus on the individual without any distraction from the surroundings or props. At fifty cents for three, the photos ended up in postcard format in family albums and living rooms.
Not until 1977, eighteen years after Disfarmer’s death, did his work attract the attention of the world of photography and art. That year the ICP in New York organized an exhibition of enlargements made from the original glass negatives, which had been kept throughout the intervening period by the former mayor of Heber Springs. After an extensive project in Heber Springs, the vintage prints were brought together in early 2000 in the collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, and at the Edwynn Houk Gallery. Since then the work has become part of the collections of the Arkansas Art Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the International Center of Photography in New York.
The exhibition Disfarmer – The Vintage Prints is part of a series of exhibitions about photo studios that Foam has presented in recent years, including Portraits from Isfahan, Fotogalatasaray and Miryam Sahinyan’s Photo Studio. This reflects a growing interest over the past twenty years in vernacular photography and in its value both as social history and as art.
All prints are courtesy of the Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York, or the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg.
From a Studio in Arkansas, a Portrait of America
By PHILIP GEFTERAUG. 22, 2005
Dead for half a century, Mike Disfarmer, the eccentric portrait photographer from Heber Springs, Ark., has drawn modest yet respectful attention in recent decades. From the 1920's to the 50's, he photographed a steady stream of townspeople in his Main Street studio in an American Gothic style of portraiture that was singularly his own.
Now, a trove of recently discovered vintage prints is generating renewed interest in his work. In a hush-hush entrepreneurial race to the finish, two photography collectors from New York have separately bought up about 3,400 vintage prints stashed away in the attics and basements of relatives of Disfarmer's subjects.
The only prints of his work previously known to exist were made posthumously from about 3,000 glass negatives found in his studio when he died in 1959.
The New York collectors, Steven Kasher and Michael Mattis, began acquiring the vintage prints last year after a young couple from Heber Springs who had relocated to Chicago offered Mr. Mattis 50 family pictures taken by Disfarmer. Word of the sale traveled back to Heber Springs, where residents realized that their family pictures might also be of value. Several people tracked Mr. Mattis down to offer their pictures for sale. That's when he saw gold - well, silver (as in silver prints) in them there hills.
Around the same time, other Heber Springs residents began contacting Mr. Kasher, a dealer who once worked for Howard Greenberg Gallery, which sells prints from Disfarmer's glass negatives. That piqued Mr. Kasher's interest in buying up as many vintage prints as he could find.
What makes these postcard-size prints of unknown people so valuable is their authenticity. A vintage print, one made by a photographer around the time the picture was taken, will be closer to the way the photographer wanted it to look. Because the photographic paper dates from when the picture was taken, the print is a genuine artifact of its era. Disfarmer's clients often ordered several copies of their pictures, so Mr. Mattis and Mr. Kasher realized that a single image might be in the possession of more than one friend or relative.
Now, fresh from the foothills of the Ozarks, several hundred of these newly discovered portraits are the subject of simultaneous exhibitions opening on Sept. 8 in Manhattan, at the Edwynn Houk Gallery on the Upper East Side and at the new Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea. Two books are being published in conjunction with the shows.
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"It's always a good way to make a big statement, and it's definitely a marketing strategy," Mr. Kasher said of the exhibitions and books.
Mr. Houk is less enthusiastic about the simultaneous timing of the shows.
"It's not particularly a good thing," he said. "In fact, it would be better to do it sequentially." But Mr. Kasher had decided to time his Disfarmer show with the opening of his new gallery in Chelsea, so the two dealers agreed to work together.
Mr. Kasher is pricing his Disfarmer prints from $10,000 to $30,000. Mr. Houk's will range from $7,500 to $24,000.
Mr. Kasher said he had bought 400 prints over all, and Mr. Mattis said he had acquired 3,000, selling about 1,000 of those to Mr. Houk.
Mr. Kasher would not say what he had paid over all for his photographs. Mr. Mattis would only say that he had invested a seven-figure sum in the process of acquiring his vintage prints.
"Michael and I were both doing the same thing at the same time," Mr. Kasher said. "Sometimes we were competing. Sometimes we were cooperating more, just like any two collectors who were interested in the same subject." He added that they even traded prints.
In his quest for the vintage work, Mr. Mattis mounted a show of Disfarmer prints from the glass negatives at the Cleburne County Historical Society in Heber Springs and put advertisements in the local paper seeking vintage Disfarmer prints.
Mr. Mattis hired half a dozen residents to go door to door, because he said he thought they would be more likely than New Yorkers to gain people's trust when asking about their family photos. He found some scouts by searching for the Heber Springs ZIP codes on eBay, others by word of mouth.
He trained his scouts to identify good prints from bad. "There is image quality and there is print quality," he explained, saying he preferred subjects wearing overalls instead of suits, and with serious expression rather than smiles. If the print was yellow, creased, flushed out in the highlights, or had a flat tonal range, he wasn't interested. Eventually, he said, his representatives in Heber Springs were giving him "the same kind of condition report you'd get from Sotheby's or Christie's."
Representatives scanned the Disfarmer prints they gathered from residents, and e-mailed them as digital images to Mr. Mattis.
Mike Disfarmer, formerly Mike Meyer, was viewed as a maverick. To drive home his individuality, he adopted a contrarian surname. (In German "Meier" means dairy farmer.) Farmland surrounds Heber Springs and farmers make up the majority of the local population.
As a bachelor, loner, atheist and the only person in town to practice studio photography, Disfarmer was in fact very different from most people there. Notice of his name change appeared in the local paper under a headline, "Truth Is Stranger than Fiction," which included Disfarmer's account of his origins - something about being delivered on his parents' doorstep by the winds of a tornado.
According to an essay by the writer Richard B. Woodward in "Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints" (Powerhouse Books), published for the show at Edwynn Houk, the photographer "paid far more attention to people as artistic problems to solve, sometimes taking as long as an hour to make a portrait, than as individuals with lives outside the studio."
Mr. Woodward cites one subject, Charlotte Lacey, photographed by Disfarmer in her school band uniform during the early 1940's. Disfarmer wasn't friendly or talkative, she recalled. The studio, she said, was "this big empty room" with "damp walls," and he was "very spooky and scary" when he vanished under the camera cloth for minutes at a time.
"There wasn't much of a greeting when you walked in, I'll tell you that," another subject, Tom Olstead, is quoted as saying. "Instead of telling you to smile, he just took the picture. No cheese or anything."
In a telephone interview last week, Sandra S. Phillips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said of Disfarmer's images: "He's not an expansive voice, but he's carved out a very small field for himself, which is studio portrait photography of ordinary people. He's great at what he does when he does it well."
His images, with their stripped-down, no-nonsense quality, focus directly on the individual as specimen. In that era, of course, self-consciousness was less about how to play to the camera than about the shyness of posing in front of it. With his outsider's eye, Disfarmer captured that awkwardness, and provided a record of people from a particular time and in place in America.
Tot zijn dood een anonieme ambachtsman
Rianne van Dijck
12 april 2016
Disfarmer, The Vintage Prints
T/m 5/6 in Foam Amsterdam. Inl: foam.org
‘Soms is de werkelijkheid nog vreemder dan fictie.” Met die zin opende op donderdag 13 april 1939 de lokale krant van Heber Springs (Arkansas, VS) een berichtje over een van haar inwoners. De fotograaf Mike Meijer, 59 jaar en eigenaar van de Meijer Studio, wilde niet langer zo heten. Hij beweerde dat hij op driejarige leeftijd in een tornado naar het gezin Meijer was geblazen en dat hij, nu zijn vermeende ouders waren overleden en hij in onmin leefde met de familie, zijn naam wilde veranderen in Mike Disfarmer. ‘Een hoogst ongebruikelijk verzoek’, zo meende de rechter, die desondanks besloot het te honoreren.
Het is een van de wonderbaarlijke verhalen over Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959), de studiofotograaf die tussen 1915 en 1959 de inwoners fotografeerde van het plattelandsdorp Heber Springs: boeren in overalls, vrouwen in een bloemetjesjurk, soldaten voordat ze naar het front vertrokken. Net als de Amerikaanse fotografen Dorothea Lang en Walker Evans fotografeerde hij de boerenbevolking gedurende de Great Depression van de jaren dertig, met dat verschil dat Lang en Evans erop uit trokken, terwijl het bij Disfarmer ging om buren, kennissen, vrienden en familie. Terwijl zij te boek stonden als beroemde fotografen, zou Disfarmer tot zijn dood een anonieme ambachtsman zijn, die in stilte en onopvallend zijn werk deed: voor 50 cent maakte hij voor zijn klant drie foto’s, formaat postkaart.
In Foam zijn nu voor het eerst (op een kleine expositie in een New Yorkse galerie in 2005 na) zijn vintageprints te zien. De originele afdrukken dus, zoals Disfarmer ze in die tijd, op die plaats in zijn donkere kamer maakte. Niet dat zijn werk niet al eerder ontdekt werd: vijftien jaar na zijn dood, in de jaren 70, werden er tentoonstellingen van zijn werk gehouden – daarbij en sindsdien ging het echter altijd om uitvergrotingen en uitsnedes, gemaakt op basis van de originele glasnegatieven die al die tijd bewaard waren door de voormalige burgemeester van Heber Springs. De intieme kwaliteit die Disfarmer in zijn portretten had weten te leggen, werd al snel herkend en de foto’s werden verzameld en opgenomen in belangrijke collecties van onder andere het MoMa en het International Center of Photography in New York. Hij werd vergeleken met Diane Arbus, Irving Penn en August Sander en voor Richard Avedon zouden zijn rurale beelden de inspiratie zijn voor zijn beroemde serie In the American West.
De originele foto’s die nu in Foam te zien zijn, hebben niet de allure die bovenstaande ronkerigheid doet vermoeden. Het zijn geen perfecte afdrukken. Ze hebben bij mensen aan de muur gehangen of werden in familiealbums geplakt, en zijn daardoor soms beschadigd en verkleurd. En ze zijn een stuk kleiner dan de postuum geprinte versies. Het houdt in dat je soms bijna met je neus op de foto moet gaan staan om goed te kunnen zien. Disfarmer fotografeerde zo dicht op de huid, in zo’n heldere en eenduidige beeldtaal, dat je als kijker zo extra het gevoel krijgt even heel dichtbij deze echtparen, vriendengroepen en ouders met kinderen uit de vorige eeuw te zijn. De man die het liefst niks meer met zijn eigen afkomst te maken had, was een groot artiest in het vastleggen van de families van anderen.