In this digital age, our cellphones and cameras have generated an ocean of images.
By Margot Clark-Junkins
In this digital age, our cellphones and cameras have generated an ocean of images. We dutifully store our photographs on our laptops and in the “cloud,” where they may languish until we order prints, or we print them right at home. And who needs prints anyway, when we can post them on Facebook and Instagram?
A century ago, photographs were taken with an old-fashioned camera and a roll of film; there were no pixels or microchips, just the negatives in a darkroom, using fixative and glossy squares of emulsified paper.
Back then, photographs were savored, scrutinized and placed lovingly into albums to share with others, growing dog-eared and yellowed with age. Faint script on the backs of some prints told you that this woman was someone’s aunt or this mountain range was in New Hampshire. Odd angles and quirky compositions told you a little bit about the person behind the camera, too.
As cameras grew more affordable, and photographic “labs” cropped up, generations of families took pictures eagerly. Albums were handed down to sons and daughters, then grandkids, and were not always properly cared for or appreciated. Eventually, photos of everyday people, their towns and their trips turned up at flea markets and antique shows. These anonymous images, perilously close the brink of oblivion, were called “ephemera” and sold for very little money. More recently, however, collectors have begun to scour the market for such images, now called “vernacular” photos.
A trove of vernacular portrait photographs has just gone on view at the Neuberger Museum of Art. All of the images in this quietly fascinating exhibit, called “Becoming Disfarmer,” were taken by an eccentric fellow named Mike Meyer who lived and worked in Heber Springs, Arkansas, from 1915 until 1959.
In 1939, Meyer disavowed any connection to his family, changing his name to Disfarmer. In the rural communities around Heber Springs, hard-working men and women sat for him, eager to pay for the privilege of owning their likenesses. Disfarmer earned a good living photographing country folk and tourists, charging 25 cents for one postcard-sized black-and-white image, or 50 cents for three.
Disfarmer died in 1959 and quite a few years later, Peter Miller, an editor at the Arkansas Sun, was given the opportunity to buy some of the photographer’s negatives, which had been discovered in boxes in someone’s garage. Struck by the resonance of the portraits, Miller began a quest to identify as many of the people in the portraits as possible. In 1976, while working for renowned photographer Richard Avedon in New York City, Miller had the negatives restored and began printing enlargements. He exhibited the enlargements at International Center of Photography in 1977.
Together, the vintage photographs and their later enlargements tell a distinctly American story about a singular time and place in our nation’s history.
The exhibit’s curator, Chelsea Spengemann, poses an excellent question: Are Disfarmer’s portraits truly “works of artistic genius” or are they work-a-day, “vernacular” photos shot by a someone with a good eye? She gently nudges the viewer to consider what makes a photograph appealing; is it the vintage look of the original print or is it the range of rich tones in the later enlargement?
Is it the untold story of the person sitting for the portrait or is it the mystique of Disfarmer himself? Or is it the historical value of the collection as a whole?
When asked if he thought Disfarmer was an intentional artist, Miller replied, “If it resonates with you then — for you — it is art.” Disfarmer was a self-made man who was content to leave his life’s work in boxes; his photographic legacy remains something of a conundrum.
“Becoming Disfarmer” is on view at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase through March 22. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 12-5.