Wednesday, February 18, 2015

until March 22 reviewed in the NYTIMES: Faces of a Small Southern Town: ‘Becoming Disfarmer,’ at the Neuberger Museum of Art

copy of the review;
A visitor could spend hours studying the faces on display in “Becoming Disfarmer,” an exhibition of photographic portraits at theNeuberger Museum of Art. Couples, families, men dressed in military uniforms, pretty young women in lipstick and barrettes: They peer out from the walls and up from the glass cases. Some of the faces are freckled, others weathered and lined. A few smile, but most are grave. All stare intently into the camera’s lens.Behind the camera was Mike Disfarmer, a commercial photographer in the tourist town ofHeber Springs, Ark., who made postcard-size portraits of residents and visitors. “Becoming Disfarmer” is filled with the results of his efforts, but the show is about more than the power of his images. Through the vintage prints dating from 1925 to 1950, enlargements printed posthumously, audio interviews with people who knew him, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia, the exhibition examines Mr. Disfarmer’s curious life within its historical context.
It also raises critical questions about the way his vernacular photographs, once tucked inside wallets and stuck into family albums, have been reframed and revalued as celebrated works of art.

Born Mike Meyer in 1884, Mr. Disfarmer arrived in Heber Springs when he was 30. About 11 years later, he constructed the building where he would live and work for the rest of his life. He positioned his customers against unadorned backdrops and rarely used props. Fifty cents bought three photos, shot with a medium-format camera and printed directly from glass plate negatives.
When he was in his 50s, he changed his name to Disfarmer, claiming that he was not a Meyer, and had been delivered to the Meyer home by a tornado when he was a baby. His adopted name was derived from his rejection of the name Meyer, an archaic German term for farmer. Several of the photographs included in “Becoming Disfarmer” that are mounted on a wall devoted to his personal life reveal him to be a lean man with thin lips who wore little round glasses.
More than 15 years after he died in 1959, large-scale black-and-white enlargements made from a salvaged stash of thousands of Mr. Disfarmer’s negatives were published in a book and exhibited at the International Center of Photography. His persona took on a mystique, and he was compared to Diane ArbusIrving Penn and August Sander.
Then in 2004, roughly 3,400 of Mr. Disfarmer’s original, one-of-a-kind vintage prints were acquired from relatives of his subjects by a collector and a gallery owner, who showed selections in two Manhattan galleries the following year. With that, the work again underwent a reassessment, and prices for some images climbed as high as $30,000.

Examples from both sets of photographs, the 1970s enlargements and the trove assembled in 2004, are on view in “Becoming Disfarmer,” but neither, said Chelsea Spengemann, an independent scholar and the exhibition’s curator, fully acknowledges the pictures’ initial function as keepsakes. “I want people to appreciate his photographs aesthetically as gorgeous images,” Ms. Spengemann said, “and also historically as personal objects, pictures of real people that were made as mementos and once belonged to someone.”
To that end, the exhibition is divided: vintage prints in one half of the gallery, enlargements in the other.
The show commences with a stand holding 10 original photographs mounted between two glass panes so that both sides are visible. On the backs there are names, dates and cryptic handwritten messages. One is creased, two corners missing; stuck to its flip side are torn fragments of black paper, remnants of the photo album in which it was once glued. “They’ve been removed from their original context,” Ms. Spengemann said. “They make you remember they were meant to be held.”



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