Thursday, 15 September 2011

I love these portraits.

Last weekend I was unpacking boxes in my new home. I sat down for a rest and started tuning the smalltown channels on my bigass television.

O, fortuitous channel-surfing moment from heaven.

A documentary began on SBS. It was called Disfarmer: A Portrait of America.


Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959) grew up as Mike Meyer in Heber Springs, Arkansas (he claimed he was a foundling, blown onto the Meyer family farm by a tornado). He ran a small local portrait studio in the 1930s and he captured pivotal moments in the lives of Heber Springs townspeople between the wars. The images were unearthed fifty years later and they're now being bought out of the albums of Heber Springs families for big bucks, circulated among big city collectors, reprinted and enlarged for gallery viewing. It's all very funny and strange for the familes who own the pictures; they're wondering, "why would these Yankees pay ten thousand dollars for an old snap of grandpa and Uncle Frank standing against a wall in their war uniforms?"

The thing is, photo after photo, person after person, something special happened in front of Disfarmer's lens.

To re-quote biographer Rick Woodward (as posted on the website promoting an exhibition of vintage Disfarmer prints): "Disfarmer is not cruel, patronizing or sentimental about [his subjects'] plight. But neither is he a friend or pastor. He is like a crime scene photographer, determined to record the details because the details are ultimately what will exonerate a person. The reality of their condition--the hats, creases in their jeans and dresses, lines in faces and hands, bad posture, dangling cigarettes and arms, staring eyes--can be preserved in a photograph and serve as existential evidence."

My question today is: how did I not know about this guy? How many Disfarmers are out there in the small towns and outer suburbs and remote communities of the world, chronicling the inner lives of the people they grew up with for loose change and the joy of self-realisation as artists? The answer is toofuckingmany... and yet the bookshops and art galleries and cinemas of the world are still crapping out meaningless pap by and for privileged jerks with expensive educations and dead hearts.

As for Heber Springs... it's my unshakeable belief that an insider who has always known and been known by a people can tell their story better, more intimately, than an outsider. There is no way Disfarmer could have stirred up and caught those emotions, the rawness in those faces and bodies if he wasn't a familiar, an intimate (whether it was a congenial relationship or not, and the tornado story and the name change seem to indicate not). I know plenty of people who disagree with me on this, who see no issue with the anthropological project, with entering another culture or community and applying careful observation and skilled mimicry to the tribe in question and presenting this as art. Look, I say do what you want, but you'll never get what the insider gets, you'll never give us magic, it will only ever be a simulation. If you can prove me wrong, please do. Until that time I'm calling it a waste of your artistic energy, and given that you only have 80 or so years on this earth, you're pissing away valuable time. I'd rather you tell me about your own tribe in your stories or films or art. You have inside knowledge of that world, why don't you share it?

Anyway, all this is to say, it's a truly happy day when you find an artist who makes your hair stand on end and your skin prickle with goosebumps, whose voice you recognise in an instant across generations and continents. I want to find more Disfarmers, I want reviewers and moviemakers and librarians to help find them for me.

Can you help?


  1. What a great post. Those really are spectacular photos, from one of the most interesting and heart-breaking times in history... thanks for pointing them out. If I come across anything else about Disfarmer, I'll let you know.

  2. Thanks Heath - aren't they? I should have said 'Disfarmer or any lesser-known artist who does what he does' - there have to be more out there. You've already helped plenty when it comes to leading me to new writers, I have your Noir Fiction Guide ( printed out so I can refer to it as I hunt through the stacks. Now that's influence. :)