Segments in this Video

Mike Disfarmer Introduction (02:50)


Images from a Depression era portrait photographer held only sentimental value, until their discovery by the art world. Acquaintances describe Disfarmer as eccentric, dirty, and taciturn.

Discovering Mike Disfarmer (04:13)

Lawyer and aspiring photographer Peter Miller moved to Heber Springs, Arkansas. His newspaper encouraged readers to send in old photographs; Joe Albright had salvaged Disfarmer's collection. Most subjects were rural people visiting town on Saturday; community members recall getting their picture taken for 25 cents.

Publication and Fame (02:01)

In 1976, Miller sent Disfarmer's prints to "Modern Photography" magazine in New York. Editor Julia Scully recalls putting together the book and exhibit. Dr. Mickey Barnett could not fathom why his community members were suddenly appearing in magazines.

Inspired by Disfarmer (03:05)

Toba Tucker became a portrait photographer and visited Heber Springs to shoot some of Disfarmer's original subjects. Dan Hurlin describes developing the concept behind Disfarmer Puppet Theater.

Disfarmer Origin Myth (02:30)

Believing he had been deposited with the Meyers by a tornado as a baby, Mike Meyer changed his name to Disfarmer and disassociated himself from his family. Heber Springs community members recall his eccentricity.

Becoming a Portrait Photographer (03:05)

After a 1926 tornado destroyed his family's home, Disfarmer set up his studio. He did not ask subjects to pose or smile, but shot them as they were. His images have a narrative quality.

Collecting Disfarmers (03:13)

Loy Neighbors recalls getting his portrait taken by Disfarmer after returning from the war in a 1976 interview. Michael Mattis hired a team of collectors to identify and purchase originals from Heber Springs families.

Community Wide Scavenger Hunt (02:10)

Mattis hired Hava Gurevich to manage local picture-finders in Heber Springs. She describes culture shock when arriving from New York. Debbie Reynolds purchased a furniture store with income from selling Disfarmer originals.

Sentimental Value (01:24)

Olive Baldridge refused to sell her father's portrait by Disfarmer. Many Heber Springs community members did not understand why his work was sought after by the New York art world.

Disfarmer's Appeal (01:59)

Mattis explains that Disfarmer's portraits possess a nostalgic quality of American life in the Depression and World War II. They also capture a tension between the photographer as an insider and an outsider of the community. He was a northerner, an atheist, and a bachelor.

Disfarmer's Studio (02:49)

Community members recall being frightened of the photographer as children. Adults look uncomfortable; he instructed them not to move, due to the slow shutter speed. Barnett says subjects do not look "normal" as he knew them. Unsmiling portraits are considered more revealing.

Arkansas During the Depression (02:42)

Heber Springs farmers grew cotton, corn, and hay; locals earned 75 cents for 10 hours of harvesting cotton. Disfarmer's portraits are said to depict their response to hardship. Barnett says they had always led poor but happy lives.

Disfarmer in the Art World (02:10)

Gallery owners and collectors were surprised to learn that vintage prints existed. They sold for $20,000 each.

Modern vs. Vintage (03:58)

Miller lent Disfarmer's glass negatives to a gallery in New York. Printer Ira Mandelbaum says they were challenging to print, and advocates enlarging them to see details. His printing is an interpretation of the original.

Black Line (02:25)

Disfarmer violated photography rules by placing subjects in front of a black line. Tucker believes the artist did not care about the backdrop aesthetics, and had taped together pieces of cloth. Some collectors find the line adds geometric complexity to the composition.

Disfarmer Mystery (03:11)

Collector Carl Sandler says Disfarmer chose the moment to shoot his portraits. His subjects were not always pleased with his vision but they came back for more. Heber Springs residents had a collective memory of him but no insight into his character.

Disfarmer's Death (02:20)

Heber Springs community members sing hymns. The photographer was found dead in his studio. Olmstead recalls preparing his body for burial and donated a gravestone. He is honored at the local historical society.

Universal Human Message (02:08)

Heber Springs residents wonder why Disfarmer has become so famous, 50 years after his death. Mattis says he is one of the great portraitists in history. Viewers around the world find his images compelling.

Credits: Disfarmer (01:59)

Credits: Disfarmer

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Mike Disfarmer, small town portrait photographer turned posthumous art star. This is the story of an eccentric curmudgeon and artistic icon whose powerful pictures of depression-era USA have left an unlikely mark on the modern Manhattan art world.

Length: 53 minutes

Item#: BVL118357

ISBN: 978-1-63521-473-4

Copyright date: ©2014

Closed Captioned

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