(Chicago, 1884 - 1959, Heber Springs, Arkansas)
Disfarmer (born Michael Meyers) was an eccentric photographer who ran a portrait studio in Heber Springs, Arkansas, for over 4 decades and through two world wars and the Great Depression. His work was discovered by the art world in the mid-1970s when a cache of his negatives was found by a former professional portrait photographer who recognized their difference from other commercial portraits of this time period, which aimed to flatter or enhance the sitters’ status.
Disfarmer never told his subjects to smile when he was taking their pictures, and was known to remain completely silent throughout a portrait session. Sometimes, when sitters were too stiff or posed, Disfarmer would bang a cow bell at the moment he snapped the shutter. This method, later used by Diane Arbus, resulted in images with elements of candid discomfort or surprise. The luminosity of many of his compositions was produced by thoughtful lighting, mostly natural sunlight from a skylight in his studio. Disfarmer also used a photographic emulsion that was insensitive to reds, which imparted a ruddy tone to flesh in his black-and-white images.
Disfarmer placed his sitters in front of plain backgrounds that let them be seen for who they were: farmers, local shopkeepers, soldiers going to war or just returned from the front, a young couple on a Saturday night date. His working process and seemingly transparent style prefigures that of Irving Penn. Richard Avedon considered Disfarmer’s photographs to be “indispensable” and they may have influenced his own series of rural portraits. Like August Sander’s collective portrait of Germans, Disfarmer’s body of work chronicling a small farming town in Arkansas gives us deep insight into a particularly society.