Mike Disfarmer is a true American eccentric. Born Mike Meyer, he changed his name to distance himself from both the surrounding farming community of his native Arkansas and from his own kinfolk-claiming that a tornado had accidentally blown him onto the Meyer family farm as a baby. The son of a German-born Union soldier in the heart of the South, Disfarmer was an agnostic from Lutheran stock among the church-going Baptists and Methodists, and remained a confirmed bachelor in a community of large families.
Despite his outsider status, as the resident studio photographer in the tiny town of Heber Springs from 1917-1956, Disfarmer was the ultimate insider, privy to each family's rites of passage-from first birthdays to high-school graduations, from engagements to anniversaries, from army furloughs to funerals. His studio portraits present the people of the heartland during the turbulent times of the early twentieth century. Disfarmer documented the farm families as they sent their sons to fight World War I, struggled through the Great Depression and returned to battle for World War II. His career concludes with the optimistic 1950s, as his previously somber camera joyfully captures the pairings of bobby-soxed young women and their James Dean-wannabe boyfriends.
Previously, Disfarmer's work was known only from a cache of glass-plate negatives that had been salvaged from his studio after his death and spanned a fifth of his forty-year career. The culmination of an unprecedented two-year historical reclamation project in which a dedicated team of researchers scoured every family album in every home along every dirt road in Cleburne Count, Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints presents the never-before-seen original vintage prints of the enigmatic photographer throughout his career.
by Edwynn Houk
This publication accompanies the exhibition Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints at Edwynn Houk Gallery from 8 September - 15 October 2005. For almost thirty years, Edwynn Houk Gallery has mounted exhibitions, published catalogues, and acquired photographs for museums and collectors. We have introduced the work of unknown and young artists who have gone on to receive significant acclaim. We have also represented artists already well established for whom we have tried to add to their known body of work with exhibitions and publications.
A few of these artists, like Brassaï and André Kertész, on several occasions led us to sources that turned out to own photographs higly important to their careers, long thought to have been lost. In addition, the Gallery has represented estates such as those of Dorothea Lange and Bill Brandt where in the course of our research we tracked down significant works which were not part of the estate collection and occasionally not even part of the artist's known oeuvre. We have also made a number of always-surprising discoveries of great individual works in teh course of our various activities.
It is quite fair to say, however, that in almost thirty years in teh field of photography, I have never had an experience comparable to the discoveries which make up Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints. The scale, the thoroughness of the undertaking, and the exciting success of the search are without precedent in the history of Edwynn Houk Gallery. We have, I believe, rediscovered and redefined a body of work by one of the medium's great artists. On a personal level, this project owes much to the inspiration and experience gained while working with the estate of the great German photogrpaher August Sander in 1976, an opportunity for which I shall always be indebted to gallerist Tom Halsted and to the family of August Sander.
Above all, I would like to thank collector Michael Mattis who conceived of this historical reclamation project nearly two years ago, and had the vision, passion, and tenacity to carry it to completion. The reconstitution of the life's work of a great artist that resulted from this vision is an invaluable contribution to both the cultural and art history of America.