A retrospective at Foam, Amsterdam looks at a series by the American portrait photographer Mike Disfarmer. While his work remained in obscurity till after his death in 1959, Disfarmer’s images are now considered classics of American portraiture.
The photographs were taken in Disfarmer’s hometown in Heber Springs. From 1914, he ran a studio with another photographer named George Penrose. They took portraits typical to the times; ones with painted cloudscapes for backdrops and with the subject leaning on a piece of prop furniture.
But Disfarmer soon moved away from his work with Penrose and set up his own studio. He replaced the artificial backdrops with black or white ones to create a more contemporary feel. His approach to portraiture was also different, as he asked his subjects to look straight into the camera, without pulling any awkward poses. The result is a collection of images that are brutally simplistic.
Charging 50 cents for three photographs in postcard format, Disfarmer’s clients were a cross-section of locals at Heber Springs: farmers in overalls, housewives, soldiers, football players, children in their Sunday best and the farming community during the Great Depression and more optimistic 1950s.
In 1977, 18 years after Disfarmer’s death, the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York hosted the first ever exhibition of a selection of his Heber Springs images. After an extensive project to restore and compile the entire collection of his portraits, the vintage prints were brought together in 2000 at the Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.
After this, Disfarmer’s work has continued to gain popularity and has now become part of the collections at the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art and ICP in New York, and the Arkansas Art Center.