Disfarmer (1884-1959) was an eccentric photographer who lived in Heber Springs, Arkansas (population about 3,800) where he ran a photographic portrait studio in the years between the wars. His portraits of the residents of Herber Springs and its surroundings , take an unflinching look at a hardscrabble existence; a small-town culture shaped by the rigors of farm life at an emotional and historical turning point in United States history. More than portraits of people, these photographs also act as documents of small town life in America.
Disfarmer’s decided focus was on the individual, always photographing his subjects in direct north light. The resulting portraits have a startling immediacy that share the spirit of predecessor August Sander and 1960s images by Diane Arbus; photographs that at once confront viewers and capture the core character of the subject.
Disfarmer, born Mike Meyers, underwent an identity transformation in mid-life, denying his relationship to his family who were farmers. His assertion was that as Meyer meant “farmer” in German, and, as he was not a Meyer or a farmer, he took the name “dis”farmer. For more than 45 years, Disfarmer lived in Heber Springs estranged from his family.
Though he had dabbled in photography before, at one point setting up a darkroom on his mother’s back porch, Disfarmer committed himself to a career as a professional sometime in the 1930s. At his studio, he used commercially available glass plates. Rather than photographically enlarging the negatives, he made contact prints from the glass plates. He rarely used studio props, and when he did, they were minimal; nothing distracts attention from the sitter.
Disfarmer’s portraits are included in 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 City.