Disfarmer review

October 15, 2010

Disframer: A Portait of America opens the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival with two showing tonight — at 7 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. the Malco Theater. Here’s my review of the film.

Mike Myer felt himself different from the family that raised him; so different that he estranged himself from them and changed his name, legally, to Mike Disfarmer. He chose the name “ Disfarmer” because he believed, mistakenly, that “Meyer” was the German word for farmer. And Mike was certainly not a farmer. Or a Meyer. Maybe not even a human being.

He was apparently “about half schiz,” as one of the subjects interviewed in Martin Lavut’s compelling film Disfarmer: A Portrait of America remembers. He was a strange, dirty and taciturn man — a well-known character in Depression-era Heber Springs. He was also the town photographer, and as such privy to those moments that the townspeople wanted to memorialize. For some of them, having their photographs taken was enough of a novelty to pass as entertainment. People from all over Cleburne County came to town to have their picture taken at Disfarmer’s studio.

He took thousands of portrait photographs, and then, in 1959,  he died in his studio, amid rats and opened cans of food. He was buried and largely forgotten, his photographs buried deep in the family albums of people who were very much unlike him.

Then, in the ’70s, a young photographer named Peter Miller — the same Peter Miller whose law practice is advertised on television and billboards —  ran across them and realized how strange and wonderful they were. Miller understood this probably because he — like Disfarmer — was an outsider. He understood there was a quality to Disfarmer’s photographs that made them more than souvenirs. Mad Mike  Disfarmer was a rustic genius.

And, so Disfarmer is now celebrated as one of the great portrait photographers, and anyone who looks at more than a few of his photographs recognizes that there is something  remarkable about them.

At first glance, Disfarmer’s black and white portraits, are reminiscent of the work of the photographers of the Farm Security Administration — Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn — but there’s an additional dimension in that, although Disfarmer’s subjects were presumably willing, paying customers, in these prints they as often look like quarry as clients with vain expectations.

They face the camera in naked light, looking startled or hopeful or querulous. There is a caught quality to most of them, but no embarrassment. The faces seem rural and drawn, more products of a difficult life than hard living. While it’s difficult to identify a specific point of style, there is a hunted, haunted look to these faces it would be possible to dismiss as accidental in one or two prints yet cumulatively it overwhelms.

Lavut’s film, with music by Bill Frisell, is nearly as mesmerizing as its subject work, as it recounts, in a fairly straightforward yet deeply intelligent manner, how this country eccentic became an art world brand. It subtly investigates the authenticity of the work — perhaps Disfarmer’s photos look the way they do because the “artist” beneath the shroud didn’t care about how the photographs turned out?

Looking at Disfarmer’s work, it’s not hard to believe he didn’t care about his neighbors, that he was using them to his own ends, modeling light on their faces for his own terrible edification.

Because a photograph is not purely objective, because it is not reality, photographers have the means and a duty to use their images to do more than reflect the world around them. While the parameters of photography are necessarily different than those of literature or painting — techniques through which a scene must be narrowly and selectively described — the photographer is capable of telling the same kinds of stories. Disfarmer’s photos almost invariable include details that evoke a story — he suggests narratives, freighted moments on the verge of resolution.

Maybe to be an artist a photographer must be more subtle and more alert to nuance than the painter or the writer, who, after all, are able to invent characters and details to make their points. All a photographer can do is wait for the moment, arrest it, and prefer one exposure over another. Some people might think it is easier to simply snap a picture than paint a portrait, but when it comes to making art, the process is much more intricate and involved.

Anyone who has ever had a driver’s license or glanced at a Playboy centerfold knows how a photograph can lie. Though they are generally regarded as capable of furnishing good evidence (or at least they were until the relatively recent advent of computer doctoring), part of the art of photography is learning how to trick the light. Photos can mislead, they can dissemble, and if one puts too much faith in any given image, one lends that image the power to betray.

This power to lie elevates photography beyond a mere technical specialty into the realm of art, which imposes on the photographer — and the filmmaker — certain moral responsibilities.

Disfarmer may well have been the kind of monster that the children of Heber Springs often took him for, but the moments he arrested testify  for his soul. And Disfarmer; A Portrait of America tells his story, with temperate, economic precision and style.

(Disfarmer’s portraits are included in the permanent collections of the New York Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Arkansas Arts Center Museum and the International Center of Photography in New York City. Disfarmer’s work has also been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout Europe and the United States.)

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