Written by Tony Sylvester
While very little is known of American glass plate photographer Mike Disfarmer besides basic biographical facts, his legacy as a de facto social documentor of early 20th century rural life in the American South is colossal.
Born Mike Meyer in Indiana in 1884, his family moved to Arkansas when he was 8 years old. From German immigrant stock, it seems Disfarmer was a little too eccentric and aloof for the pastoral life mapped out for him, changing his name to reflect this dissatisfaction. Born with the moniker "Meyer" - the German for "dairy farmer", he became a "dis" or "anti"-farmer, setting up a darkroom and studio on the back porch of his family home.
By 1930 a tornado had destroyed both the house and studio, and Disfarmer built new storefront premises on the main street of the small town of Heber Springs. For the next almost three decades Disfarmer offered "penny portraits" to the local populace, building up a body of work with a rigor and artistry that far exceeded the small cost of the keepsake. Using only natural light, his sittings were long and meticulous affairs, stretching to hours rather than the instantaneous process of most picture hawkers, and the results speak of both an honest solemnity and offer strikingly personal insight in their raw simplicity.
While considered strange and arrogant by the townspeople, his prowess was much in demand and he left behind a huge archive of material on his death in 1959. The over 3,000 negative plates would have been trashed and forgotten had it not been for the keen eye of retired army engineer Joe Albright who bought his property and recognised the unique qualities of the cache.
In 1970 a local paper, The Arkansas Sun, asked readers to send in old family photos for a new section entitled Someday My Prints Will Come, Albright sent some over for consideration, thus beginning Disfarmer's recognition for pioneering work. Sun editor Phil Miller, struck by the power of the pictures, purchased the collection and obtained a grant to clean and catalogue the archive. This led to local exhibitions, book publications and ultimately permanent spots at the International Center for Photography, The New York Museum Of Modern Art, The Met and exhibitions worldwide.
The portraits are time capsules of how ordinary people dressed and presented themselves. So much American photography of the early 20th century concerns either portraits of the rich and famous, or photojournalism of its more impoverished citizens offering an often patronizing narrative of the subjects. Disfarmer's work offers no judgment, just capturing people in a specific time and place giving them dignity and forbearance. At the time of the Great Depression and the decades after, the men and women in the plates have dressed up for their portraits in work clothes, uniforms or "Sunday best". Chore coats stand in for sports coats, Army khakis for tuxedos, overalls for bowties and boaters. Shoes are scuffed, and trousers have the patina of the working life.
No gimmicks, no glamour, just a stark powerful record of people whose lives would have been forgotten if it were not for Disfarmer's groundbreaking and incomparable eye.