Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mike Disfarmer: Town Photographer

(Above) Mike Disfarmer
Drinking Buddies, 1939-46, © Stephen Kasher Gallery
(Above) Mike Disfarmer
Estell and Neeta Sue, 1939-1946, © Stephen Kasher Gallery
(Above) Mike Disfarmer
Essie Watters West Sutterfield and her brother William Lloyd Watters, ca. 1945
© Stephen Kasher Gallery
(Above) Mike Disfarmer
Siblings Gladys Bullard Dickens, Bynum Bullard, Elsie Bullard Brewer, and Stella Bullard, ca. 1945, © Stephen Kasher Gallery
(Above) Mike Disfarmer
(two boys holding money), ca. 1945
© Stephen Kasher Gallery
(Above) Mike Disfarmer
Two Young Men, 1940-45, © Stephen Kasher Gallery
(Above) Mike Disfarmer
Ina Kendall, Son Jerry Wayne, and Unidentified, 1942
© Stephen Kasher Gallery

(Above) Short video introduction of the puppet theatre work, Disfarmer.

DISFARMER, WHICH PREMIERED IN JANUARY OF THIS YEAR at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY, is a puppet theater work inspired by the life of American portrait photographer Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959). Something of a small town “Boo Radley,” Disfarmer operated a photography studio in Heber Springs, Arkansas, where for years locals and tourists lined up to have their picture made. Using glass plate photography long after it was obsolete, Disfarmer left his subjects to decide for themselves how to act in front of his lens. When thousands of these glass plates were discovered in the 1970’s, Disfarmer’s photographs were acknowledged as a stunning achievement for their exquisite artistry, their profound empathy for their subjects, and their invaluable documentation of a way of life that has all but vanished from the United States. How could a man who openly disdained his fellow citizens portray them with such compassion?

Director and designer Dan Hurlin, working with playwright Sally Oswald and composer Dan Moses Schreier, has recreated a visceral sense of Mike Disfarmer’s interior and exterior worlds, illuminating the contradictions in the life of this American hermit and portrait artist. The production features the American style of “tabletop” puppetry, projections of Disfarmer’s photographs and images produced by old optical techniques; and a sound score with haunting music from antique recording technologies (such as Edison Wax disks), re-contextualized and mixed with modern sampling techniques. Disfarmer himself—alone, but not despairing, longing, but not lonely—is represented by a series of puppets, each an exact reprint of the last, except two inches smaller. Disfarmer shrinks like the rest of rural America, until he is completely gone, and we are left with the quiet and nervous expectancy of standing perfectly still for a long exposure.

Hurlin said of this project:

“Being introduced to Mike Disfarmer’s photographs and learning his enigmatic history, I felt compelled to decode both the images and the man who made them. How did Disfarmer, who was by all accounts the town “Boo Radley,” manage to get his subjects to lower their guard for him so completely? How could this misanthropic outcast live his life resenting the rural isolation of Heber Springs, Arkansas, without ever making an attempt to break away? While the subjects in Disfarmer’s portraits are (or were) real people with real lives, for contemporary viewers they are ciphers - repositories for our own daydreams and ruminations. “She is her sister,” we might think. “He is about to go off to War,” “They are lovers,” “That marriage is over.”

“Puppets are also blank slates, inanimate objects whose inner lives are supplied by the insistence of the audience’s imagination. This shared quality is what convinced me that puppetry was the appropriate medium to use in telling the story of Mike Disfarmer and his pictures. The small town portrait photographer is a dying breed, and the body of Disfarmer’s work documents the vanishing world of rural America with astounding clarity. It has been suggested that, in some ways, Disfarmer was less an artist than a kind of scientist who pinned his subjects to a black backdrop like specimen butterflies. Puppetry is a medium that, while shrinking the subject to less than human size, magnifies their actions. I am putting Disfarmer and his photographs under the same intense scrutiny that he used on his family and neighbors, to understand and perhaps to even empathize with his photographs as deeply personal expressions of their time and place.”

Learn more about MAPP International Productions and the puppet production Disfarmer by clicking here.

Images © Stephen Kasher Gallery.


Jason Mihalko said...

I found an image on Tumblr that caught my eye and discovered that it was taken by Disfarmer. In learning about him I found your blog. I'm so glad I did. I love thinking about the images that I find online and the stories they tell -- looking forward to seeing the mysteries you discover.


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