Mike Disfarmer has been described as one of the best portrait photographers in history. Disfarmer captured the history of Herber Springs, Arkansas as a studio photographer in a defining time. Disfarmer portrays the Great Depression, World War II, and the after effects on small town America in his portrait photography.
Disfarmer is not only a recorder of history, but a striking portrait photographer that captured the hearts and souls of his subjects. Julia Scully argues that Disfarmer is successful because “ultimately what underlies the effectiveness of the work and what moves us are the results of Disfarmer’s genius in allowing his subjects’ souls to show. In this sense, the photographer and the people of Herber Springs collaborated in an artistic venture more profound than either could possibly have imagined (p.14).”
When seen as a collection the photography is surprisingly sparse. Usually Disfarmer uses a plain black background and few if any props. Yet despite the sparseness of the photography’s, they are startling. Harrison writes, “Even the proudest of his subjects look strangely vulnerable – a quality . . . which runs as a consistent undercurrent through the stark studio images and surfaces when they are seen as a group (p. xi).”
Mike Disfarmer also provided a touching portrait photography collection of history. Disfarmer captured all of the following in his photographs:
1. Photographs of farmers in coveralls with their families and friends on a day out in town.
2. Soldiers pictured with family, children, and friends going to or returning from World War II.
3. Both the poor and the prosperous were both captured. Disfarmer charged 4 cents a print.
4. Many or those who were photographed by Disfarmer did not smile or attempt to put themselves in their best light – many exhibit frowns and blank stares. Disfarmer obviously wasn’t asking those being photographed to smile or say “cheese.”
5. The photography shows no signs of the homophobia so present today. Men are photographed with their arms around each other, sitting in close proximity to each other, obviously openly enjoying close bonds of friendship, and feeling comfortable displaying that closeness.
Mike Disfarmer has been described by the few people who remember his as eccentric. Truly little is known about who Mike Disfarmer was as a person and what he thought about his photography. Julia Scully wrote, “What is most remarkable about the photographer is how little we know of him. Although he lived 45 years in a town of no more that 3,800 inhabitants, his life nevertheless remains an almost complete mystery. It seems he confided in no one and no one wondered why (p.1.)”
In conclusion, Mike Disfarmer provided a striking and touching photography collection that records small town America in historical times
Scully, Julia. The Herber Springs Portraits 1939-1946. Danbury, New Hampshire: Addison House, 1976.
Tucker, Toba Pato. Herber Springs Portraits: Continuity and Change in the World Disfarmer Photographed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.