Disfarmer: A Portrait of America

A few documentaries about photography are being screened on local TV’s channel, The Knowledge Network this month as part of the Capture Photography Festival. I have just finished watching the documentary on Mike Disfarmer.

Disfarmer (1884 – 1959) was a photographer from Heber Springs, Arkansas whose best work portrayed rural Americans during wartime and during the Depression years. In the documentary he is described as “scary looking”, “dirty”, “didn’t bother much with talking”, “a loner” and “a weirdo”. He was originally born Mike Meyer, sixth child in a family of seven to German parents. After a tornado in the 1930’s destroyed his mother’s house out of which he used to work, he built his own studio on Main Street, Heber Springs and turned to photography full time. It is told in the documentary that Mike Meyer was convinced that a tornado had picked him up when he was a baby and deposited him at the Meyer’s house and that he did not really belong there. As a result, after the death of his mother, he legally changed his name to Disfarmer, believing that Meyer meant farmer in German and that he wanted no association with that occupation whatsoever, also rejecting his family.

It was mainly the people living in the rural areas who were his subjects. They would dress up in their best clothes, come to town on a Saturday and part of their entertainment consisted of having their photograph taken by Mike Disfarmer. When war broke out, he would photograph young soldiers with their sweethearts or mothers or young ladies who wanted to send a photo to their loved ones behind the lines.

His photographs are very compelling and have a visual grit to them. Most of the subjects have a stark, wide-eyed expression on their faces which looks a little unnatural to me and the children look rather scared. I found this a little off putting. Apparently he would instruct his subjects not to blink and would also ring a bell to startle his subjects. Someone commented in the documentary, that Disfarmer brought out the natural rawness and feelings of his subjects, but I think that is a bit debatable. Yes, the photos have wonderful detail and clarity, but I don’t see the true essence of the subjects being reflected.

One of the interviewees disputes the fact that Disfarmer has gained his fame off Depression photos. He stated that the community was a poor one. They didn’t even know there was a depression on because nothing had changed for them during that time. Everyone was poor.

There seems to be a controversial point raised by some of the photographers who were interviewed about the black line in some of Disfarmer’s portraits. He time and again broke the rule of not having something growing out of someone’s head. His white backdrop had solid black vertical lines and it seems as if he purposely positioned the subjects so that they were centred in front of this line. No one know whether he did this on purpose or just simply didn’t care.

While his photographs are without a doubt excellent, I do prefer those of Dorothea Lange, where a variety of emotions are displayed, even without the person smiling.

Some of his images can be seen on this Vimeo trailer to the movie.

References

Disfarmer: A Portrait of America [documentary film] Dir. Martin Lavut. Public Pictures/Nomad Films Inc. in association with TVO makes you think., Canada, 2010. 52 min 04 secs.

Ruzic, Rob, Disfarmer: A Portrait of America [vidcast trailer, online] 15/01/2011 2 min 28 secs. https://vimeo.com/album/1699435/video/18819679 (accessed 5 April, 2015).

 

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