BEHIND THE LENS: DISFARMER
How a Heber Springs photographer’s Arkansan Gothic portraits moved out of basements and attics and into the limelight
It was her aunt and a friend who were in the photo. Her aunt, dour; the friend with a slight smile, both of them looking off to some point just left of the photographer’s lens. They were wearing their finest: white dresses, matching black socks and shoes. Side by side, each held the other’s opposite hand, arms and bodies forming something like a heart.
That photo and others—that was the reason Judy Newberry Allender’s childhood friend had called her out of the blue. Of course, Judy knew what was happening. Everyone in town knew. It was 2004, and a handful of people from distant places had descended upon Heber Springs, asking around about old family photos, enlisting locals to track down original prints made by the photographer known as Disfarmer.
A photographer who’d opened a studio back in the ’30s in Heber Springs, Disfarmer had made people’s portraits for 25 cents until his death in 1959. He was, by most any account, an eccentric fellow. He told people that he was not, in fact, a Meyer—though he’d been born Michael Meyer—but that he’d been taken at birth by a tornado and plunked down with the Meyer family in Heber Springs. (According to a 2010 documentary Disfarmer: A Portrait of America, he supposedly “had the good sense to wait until his mother died before he officially changed his name.”)
She was familiar with the tenets of the photographer’s story—how interest had first been piqued in the ’70s when a local newspaper reporter sent images to the New York-based magazine Modern Photography, which eventually led to the 1976 book Disfarmer: The Heber Springs Portraits, 1939-1946—but she had first known Disfarmer through stories her relatives told. She remembered her mother telling her about going into town with a boy, walking up and down Main Street, marking the occasion, as so many did, by getting photos made.
It was interesting to her because these were just photos. They’d been sitting in an old wicker basket in her house, doing very little good for much of anyone. Why wouldn’t she sell? In retrospect, of course, she feels differently. When she sold 11 of her photos for $500, she couldn’t have known others were being offered that same amount for a single photo. She couldn’t have known the next year would see the same photos—a cache of some 3,400 originals purchased from residents of Heber Springs—being sold at exhibitions from $7,500 to $30,000 each.
Looking back, however, they’re still family photos. They were always just photos. They’re still just family.