Mike Disfarmer himself was a portrait photographer who grew up in Arkansas, taking pictures for 25 cents each. He was a loner and probably had some psychological problems: he believed he had been delivered, by tornado, to his parents door, while the tornado took away the real child. For the last year of his life, it appears, he lived on nothing but ice cream and beer.
When he died (in 1959), his estate was sold for five dollars. It included 3000 photographs. As it happened, the man who bought his estate was a photography buff and kept the glass negatives. In 1974, the Arkansas Sun asked people to send in some old family portraits. The man who had purchased Disfarmer's work send in a few photos. As it happened (once again) the newspaper editor was a photography buff, and noticed something about the photos. He bought all the negatives and printed them every week for a year.
The editor showed some of the photos to Julia Scully, editor of Modern Photography. She liked them enough to put together a book of the photos. The book got good reviews, Disfarmer's reputation started growing, and now (to condense the story) his prints sell for between $10,000 and $30,000 each.
There is a current genre of work known as vernacular photography, which, in essence, takes photographs taken as snapshots by amateurs and elevates them to art, by virtue of the fact that they capture, either deliberately or inadvertently, something essential about a time and place. Disfarmer's work is slightly different: he was a professional, taking portraits. Like the found photographs of vernacular photography, his photos were discovered almost by chance, but in many ways they say more about him then about his subjects.
Some critics refer to his photos as precursors of Diane Arbus, because of the alienated feel of the photos. The reason for that alienation is clear. Disfarmer barely greeted the people paying his 25 cents per photo. He just told them to stare at the camera and not move. He used old equipment, partly because he lacked money to by more modern equipment, partly out of obsessive compulsion. But he was a very skilled technician with that equipment. What resulted was photographs that reflected his own alienation in the faces of his subjects.
Does that make Disfarmer a great photographer? Arbus deliberately chose her subjects and was trying to make a statement with her work. Disfarmer was making portraits as best he knew, just for the sake of making the portraits. He was not trying to speak to alienation. His subjects might have been happier with somewhat less disturbing photographs, though people did seek him out, partly because of his oddity. Does mental illness plus technical skill mean art?
I don't know. The play never really addresses that. The play itself is more a portrait of isolation. Disfarmer gets smaller day by day, diminishing into nothing. In the notes, it says the production deliberately tried to add nothing to Disfarmer's biography, just showing him as he was. Which is did, and the technical skill of the puppet makers and puppet performers was impressive. But I did have to wonder, was there anything that the piece said in the end, besides that there are people out there that are a little crazy and a little lonely.
What fascinates me is the randomness of Disfarmer's success (if the classic story of an artist recognized well after his death can be called success). Disfarmer's photos happened to end up in the right hands, who, by promoting his work, have managed to make a great deal of money themselves. What does that say about the nature of what we consider great art? I am an amateur photographer myself, and so often go to photography exhibits. At times, I look at a photo and I am very impressed. But at times, I am baffled. At times, I think, I have taken snapshots no better and thrown them away. Should I, instead, have blown them up to half the size of the room and hung them on the wall? Am I missing something about the photo that others see? Or is the acting of blowing it up and putting it on the wall enough to convince most anyone that it, in fact, deserves to be on that wall. And how many Disfarmers are there in the world, whose work can be taken and displayed, if only anyone thought to take them and display them?
I am reminded of the book the Drunkards Walk, which I blogged about some while ago. It talks about how success and failure in the arts can all be looked at through the lens of probability, that the best indicator of success is not talent but persistence. Disfarmer rolled the dice poorly during his life. But after he died someone kept rolling and hit the jackpot.