One of the key figures in any discussion of vernacular photography is the somewhat mysterious figure of Mike Disfarmer (1882–1959), a community photographer in the small Arkansas town of Heber Springs. Disfarmer is noted for the disarmingly frank and surprisingly modernist portraits that he made of local townspeople during the 1930s and 1940s. Posed straightforwardly against a neutral black backdrop, these sitters reveal all the hope and hardship of their rural, Depression-era upbringings. In the portrait of “Ed and Mamie Barger” (ca. 1939–46), from the ICP Collection, for example, the rough work clothes and sunburnt faces are softened by the loving way they wrap their arms around each other’s shoulders. Such images would have been lost save for the farsighted vision of Peter Miller, photo editor for a local newspaper and a former New York fashion photographer. In 1974, he rescued more than 5,000 discarded glass negatives by Disfarmer, published them in a landmark book (with the Bargers as the cover image), and showed them for the first time at the International Center of Photography in 1977. Now, a new exhibition, titled Becoming Disfarmer, at the Neuberger Museum of Art at SUNY Purchase through March 22, 2015, looks closely at the Heber Springs photographer, drawing in part on the ICP Collection, which includes more than 800 Disfarmer photographs.
Brian Wallis, Chief Curator