just wow
April 11, 2004 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Mike Disfarmer had a photo studio in the resort town of Heber Springs, Arkansas throughout the 30s and 40s, creating images with an amazing blunt, unvarnished beauty and strength. Nothing speaks more eloquently about Disfarmer's artistry than the photographs themselves. His genius was the ability to capture without judgment, the essence of a people and a time.
posted by amberglow (11 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is amazing stuff, and I'm glad you shared it with us.

I keep wondering, though, what the original sitters thought of their photographs. The 'Disfarmer Story' link mentions in passing that "Having your picture taken at Disfarmer's studio became one of the main attractions of a trip into town." but these are so unlike other studio portraits of the era (or any era, actually) that I have to wonder how the sitters themselves thought of either the man or the finished product. Did they (I presume) pay for these stark portraits? Did they understand what great art they were, or was it simply the only place around to have your photo taken?

I'm sure some of the sitters are still alive today. I'd love to read some interviews with them, to see what their thoughts might have been at the time, and if their opinions of the photos have changed today -- now that their faces are in galleries nationwide for all to see.
posted by anastasiav at 12:49 PM on April 11, 2004

This is all I could find about public reaction to his photos of them, anastasiav.

I saw an exhibit of these in Rotterdam in Jan., and I was so blown away by them. I do think most photo studios had money-back guarantees, and I think people didn't have much choice with regard to diff. photographers back then, especially if they didn't have their own cameras, or wanted a special pic. If he had built a reputation as being the guy to go to for pics, then people must have seen his work, and known what it would look like. additionally, I think back to pics of my brothers and myself from Sears or whatever, where we were sat and posed with a cheesy backdrop, and think a Disfarmer pic would have been better and more real.

I totally don't get the sense that he looks down on his sitters or didn't like them, no matter how much of a character or eccentric he may have been.
posted by amberglow at 1:07 PM on April 11, 2004

Great for sure. Reminded me instantly of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Agee and Evans), Depression era. Here the thumbs for the Walker Evans photos
walker evans
posted by Postroad at 1:19 PM on April 11, 2004

RhetoricalFilter: Can anybody articulate what it is about these photos that is so... creepy? Honestly, as I was paging through them, I found them disturbing but I can't say why or even in what way... Thanks for pointing these out, amberglow.
posted by JollyWanker at 2:54 PM on April 11, 2004

Thank you, Amberglow! I've never heard of Disfarmer before. The photos were especially great because I had just seen the Diane Arbus exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art two days ago. What a huge difference between the artistic visions of the two.
posted by halonine at 2:58 PM on April 11, 2004

I think with Agee and Evans (and Arbus too, in a way), there's a conscious attempt to elevate the people being shown, or to make them iconic and bigger than just "a farmer" "a rancher" or "a pair of twins." Disfarmer didn't bother with that, and he certainly didn't retouch anyone, or make the lighting more flattering (or less flattering) for anyone.

Creepy I don't know, but there is a sameness to the setting and lighting that is flattening (and I think, mesmerizing when you look at a bunch of them). It's like anastasiav said--they're so unlike other studio portraits.
posted by amberglow at 3:05 PM on April 11, 2004

Another (later) photographer this kind of reminds of is Richard Avedon and his book "In the American West."
posted by carter at 3:29 PM on April 11, 2004

P.S. Cheers, amberglow!
posted by carter at 3:30 PM on April 11, 2004

not to dump on some overpriced yet striking pictures, but jolly i think noticed it...there's something about these pictures. it's the eyes. they're all too clear. overly colorless eyes are always striking, disturbing. does anyone know if it's a photography trick, a way of shooting pictures? wash out the eyes all intentional like?
posted by kid_twist at 3:42 PM on April 11, 2004

In the first dozen shots I looked at, nobody was smiling for the camera. No smiles at all, and a couple of them looked rather dour. Just as I was getting used to that, I picked number 1094 (page 10).
posted by sfenders at 3:45 PM on April 11, 2004

In a similar vein - I've always thought that Shelby Lee Adams work was something weird and beautiful. My parents grew up around the area that most of his photographs were taken and they certainly acknowledge that they are representative of a certain "truth", disturbing as that may be.

A few more thoughts on Shelby Lee here and here .
posted by dhacker at 9:50 AM on April 12, 2004

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