3/4/2010 - A Dust Bowl Avedon, The Black & White City Paper

You can count on surprises from Jennifer Hunt Gallery. Showing now through March 27 are several works by chronic malcontent and highly eccentric photographer Mike Disfarmer.

Someone really ought to make a movie about this peculiar American artist, whose photographic work was recognized years after his death in 1959. One of seven children in a German immigrant family in Arkansas, Disfarmer (real name Mike Myers) apparently knew just enough German and English to get them mixed up when combining the two languages. "Meier" is the German word for dairy farmer. Ashamed of his rural, hardscrabble circumstances and surroundings, Meyers changed his name to Disfarmer, a lost-in-translation moniker intended to mean "not a farmer."

His, um, "dis"dain for the farming realm did not stop him from setting up shop on Main Street in Heber Springs, where he operated a photography portrait studio, capturing in the most straightforward way countless residents of Cleburne County, Arkansas. The majority of his work was done during the Great Depression and WWII, and the reclusive photographer squirreled much of it away in hiding places (along with his income).

After his passing in 1959, the discovery of thousands of glass-plate negatives at Disfarmer's studio eventually led to a curatorial interest by Modern Photography editor Julia Scully in the early 1970s. With the subsequent publication of Disfarmer, the Heber Springs Portraits 1939–1946, along with shows and collections at the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and elsewhere, Disfarmer rather rapidly entered the pantheon of great American photographers.

At first glance, the shots in this exhibit look like desultory commercial work from the 1930s and '40s: think Dust Bowl Olan Mills. However, it doesn't take long for the stark, penetrating quality of these images to register. According to stories from Disfarmer's rather sketchy history, his subjects might sit for long periods while the photographer made insanely intricate lighting adjustments. Clearly, Disfarmer was not aiming for glamour, but the rawness and sheer immediacy of certain photographs suggest that he may have captured, with one click, entire life stories. Whether many of those stories were happy ones is anybody's guess, considering that Disfarmer's shots often simultaneously match the weirdness of Diane Arbus and the despair of Walker Evans. 

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