The list of Arkansas artists who in the last 50 years have generated great amounts of attention and interest from the world beyond our borders is short — start, of course, with Johnny Cash and then slide (or is that jump?) over to Louis Jordan, and perhaps stop to ponder and grin at the great work of novelist Charles Portis. An underdog that absolutely belongs on this list is the late, eccentric Heber Springs portrait photographer Mike Disfarmer, who today has become something of a cottage industry. Disfarmer is the subject of a documentary, “Disfarmer: A Portrait of America,” released in 2010. Guitarist Bill Frissell released an album called “Disfarmer” in 2009 and, in the subsequent tour to support the record, played in front of projections of blown-up Disfarmer photos. Perhaps strangest of all, also in 2009, New York City was home to a well-regarded stage biography of Disfarmer performed entirely by puppets.
This week I add to Disfarmerania with my own contribution — a play titled, not-surprisingly, “Disfarmer,” debuting in this weekend’s ACANSA Arts Festival with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Argenta Community Theater. The play, directed by The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s producing artistic director, Bob Hupp, and featuring Arkansas’s own Natalie Canerday, has been in the works for quite a while.
It began some years ago as a commission from Fayetteville’s dynamic TheatreSquared company. The group asked if I had a play about an Arkansas subject. I didn’t, but because I am a desperate and craven playwright, I said yes anyway. At the time, my knowledge of Disfarmer was barely more than minimal. In 2005 I had written a feature story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on how two New York City galleries were buying up original Disfarmer prints from Heber Spring families, so I had a surface understanding when I started the play, but I wasn’t aware of how little I really knew.
The art of Disfarmer consists of the thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of black-and-white portraits he made in his lifetime (1882-1959). Art critics are attracted to this work because of its break from the conventional portrait photography of his day.
A quick glance at the photos reveals his unique approach. Disfarmer did not ask his subjects to pose stiff as statues or even to smile. The trappings of a common portrait photo — a painted backdrop or table decorated with an ostentatious bouquet of flowers — are not found in his shots. Instead, the citizens of Heber Springs and neighboring communities who paid a quarter or less for a photograph are captured in front of either a stark black backdrop or an odd white backdrop broken up by two black lines. Disfarmer only used natural light for his photos — his studio in downtown Heber Springs (which has since been demolished and replaced with a parking lot) had a specially designed skylight to make maximum use of northern sunlight.
This singular approach allowed him to shoot his subjects in a way that stripped them of any pretense or artifice. Critics and regular viewers alike see the rural America of the Great Depression and pre-World War II years in these portraits. This, of course, adds to their value and only increases our desire to know more about the curious man who made them.
Disfarmer was born in Indiana in 1882 with the given name of Michael Meyer. He then moved with his family to Stuttgart, and eventually to a farm outside Heber Springs. Meyer’s early and clearly avid interest in the burgeoning field of photography certainly set him apart from his family members (who were primarily farmers), not to mention the rest of the citizens living in and around Cleburne County. That’s not to say portrait photography was an unusual activity in the early to mid-1900s — American towns, big and small, were filled with shutterbugs willing to snap mementos for a small fee. However, even if he’d never taken a photograph, Disfarmer would have been an unusual figure in the community where he lived and worked. The tag “recluse” readily applies, as the man never married and apparently didn’t take part in the various church and community gatherings that otherwise held together the small town of Heber Springs.
Then there is the matter of the name change. After the death of his mother, Michael Meyer went to court to change his name to Disfarmer. This caught the attention of the local paper, which noted that Meyer wanted the change because he believed that when he was a baby he was picked up from his original family by a tornado and dropped on the Meyers’ doorstep. It’s believed that taking on the new moniker was a decidedly independent if not outright unhinged way for the photographer to distance himself from his farming roots.
It is only thanks to a series of improbable circumstances that the legend and art of Disfarmer were not lost to history following his death in 1959. The contents of his photography studio, which also served as his apartment and included thousands of glass plate negatives, were purchased for five dollars in a bank auction after his death. In 1973, the prints made off the plates ran in Heber Springs’ “The Arkansas Sun,” a paper edited by Peter Miller (yes, the ubiquitous Little Rock lawyer). Miller, who happened to have an interest in photography, then sent a packet of Disfarmer photos to Julia Scully, an editor at Modern Photography magazine. Despite having to sift through an avalanche of material, Scully was captivated by the work and partnered with Miller to exhibit and then publish the first book of Disfarmer photographs. The year was 1976, and the stark black-and-white photographs were instantly hailed as a treasure trove of lost American art.
The story goes quiet for several years as it was believed that the photos produced from the glass plates were all that remained of Disfarmer’s work. Flash forward to 2004, when New York photography collector Michael Mattis is alerted to the existence of (and then promptly buys) 50 original Disfarmer photographs from a family that’s moved out of Heber Springs. This kick-starts the second Disfarmer frenzy, as Mattis and another New York collector scramble to find and purchase as many prints as they can. They recruit Heber Springs residents to go door-to-door offering to buy any originals they find. Remarkably, this works, as Disfarmer prints were stuffed away in old photo albums and stored in the attics of families all over the city. In 2005, two New York City galleries simultaneously hold exhibits of these newly recovered photographs. As they did in 1976, the press and art experts come out of the woodwork to hail the work of the once obscure Arkansas photographer.
This recent golden kiss of the art market adds an almost irresistible allure to Disfarmer’s already mesmerizing life. My play is my own fictional take on the story, focusing on his life and on the 2005 treasure hunt for original prints. I will, of course, be excited to see actors attempt to illuminate what I have come to know of the artist and the emotions stirred up by his work. I’m sure I won’t be the last writer to try to capture this seemingly endlessly fascinating Arkansas tale.
Tickets to “Disfarmer” are $10 for students, $30 for regular tickets, $50 for VIP tickets (dinner before the performance Sept. 25 only. Go to acansaartsfestival.org to purchase. See more ACANSA events on page 58.)