Walking through the series of portraits by Mike Disfarmer currently on view in the Zilka Gallery, I overheard one student look at a photograph and muse, “Wow, none of these people look like anyone I know.” Although a few Wesleyan students had dressed in their 1940’s finery for the opening, this statement rang true, for Disfarmer captured an America entirely different from the one we know.
Portrayed perfectly in black and white are the people of Heber Springs, Arkansas, where the photographer set up his studio. The photos depict a range – groups of girls in matching polka dot dresses, men with slicked back hair and overalls and boys with plaid jackets eerily reminiscent of current fashion trends. Still, despite the attention-grabbing attire, it is the faces of Disfarmer’s subjects which are most affecting. They are hard and gaunt, with wide eyes and high cheekbones, and relay a wealth of emotions with their blank stares.
Looking at these photos of famers and their families, one would think that Disfarmer is paying a loving tribute to his hometown, or aiming to glorify the hardworking blue collar American, but there appeared some degree of condescension behind Disfarmer’s lens — to his subjects, his town, and the American South at large.
Born Mike Meyers (unrelated to the serial killer from Halloween or Austin Powers) of German immigrants in Arkansas, Disfarmer was surrounded by agriculture from birth and developed a passionate loathing of his heritage, even claiming that a hurricane had deposited him into the Meyer household as a baby. The name “Meyer” comes from the German “meier,” meaning “dairy farmer,” which Mike distanced himself from by re-naming himself the antithesis of his home and family: Dis-Farmer. Despite this, Disfarmer stuck around in his hometown and set up an open studio where neighbors and townspeople would drop in to get “penny portraits” (you guessed it: photos for one cent).
The photos boast no fancy backgrounds, no poses and no costumes: just locals in front of a white sheet. Perhaps one could say that Disfarmer didn’t so much photograph as he did document. Rumor has is that he would hold his camera in position for an extended period of time without revealing when the actual shot was taken, resulting in the frequent looks of boredom/ impatience on his subjects’ unsuspecting faces.
Though we view these images in 21st century New England, and though not many of us have more than 4 siblings (let alone with matching outfits), Disfarmer’s photographs somehow resonate accurately today. His subjects and my peers face similar uncertainty about the future, both as Americans in a fiscal depression, and, in some shots, merely as young people, armed with lovers or pitchforks, preparing to venture into the world.