Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

REVIEW >> They were never simple days

IN SHORT: Original Mike Disfarmer photos are now on display at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena.

Special to the Leader

Looking at salvaged Mike Disfarmer photographs displayed recently at the Steven Kasher gallery in New York City might make one think that simple times made for simple people. But such a thought would be as deceiving as the photographs themselves. At first look, Disfarmer’s subjects look simple. But it’s a farce. Disfarmer captured a complexity hidden beneath a veneer of simplicity. After all, these photos weren’t taken in simple times. Many were shot during and after the Great Depression.

Disfarmer was a native of Heber Springs who rejected his German immigrant family’s occupation as farmers and set up a photo gallery on Main Street. When he died in 1959, the studio was abandoned. Some of the glass plate negatives from the 1930s and 1940s were rediscovered in the 1970s.

Many of these Heber Springs residents had probably never been photographed. Some look stunned, others looks unsure of why they are being photographed as if they really don’t want to be there, and others show off for the camera.

But for these photographs, they would have re-mained anonymous forever.

Unfortunately, these photographs only give the slightest glimpse into their lives. We are left wondering who they were. This gap leaves Disfarmer’s subjects looking more like specimens than people.

He had a hard time capturing their humanity. One couple, for instance, stares uncomfortably into the camera as if to say, “What does the photographer want from us?” They look cold and distant.

Then there are those who were obviously proud to be having their pictures taken. They put their personalities openly on display. A bikini-clad woman sits on a bench, with one leg strewn across it.

She’s happy someone is paying attention to her.

There are also family photos of people who look tired, like they traveled far to get to the Heber Springs gallery.
One family appears in what looks to be their Sunday best. The man is in a khaki soldier’s uniform standing behind two young girls in matching white dresses. They all look unhappy, as if someone is forcing them to be there. The girls, no older than 10, look as exhausted and miserable as their parents do. “Why are you interested in my simple family?” the smaller of the girl’s face seems to say.

Then there are photographs of subjects who are not so easy to tell how they relate to one another. There is a photograph of three middle-aged men and one elderly woman. It is impossible to tell the relationship between some of those in the photographs, but Disfarmer captured others perfectly.

Almost all of the subjects look like they are hard workers, that they had little free time, and that to be in front of a camera was their chance to be part of a world that was foreign to most Ark-ansans then.

More Disfarmer photographs are now on display at The Delta Cultural Center. “Disfarmer Photographs: Heber Springs Circa 1945” will be on exhibit there through Feb. 11.

These photographs are on loan from the Arkansas Arts Center.

The Delta Cultural Center is located at 141 Cherry St. in Helena.

For more information, visit www.deltaculturalcenter.com or call (870) 338-4350 or (800) 358-0972.

Aliya Feldman is a writer and legislative aide living in New York.

ON TAP >> Helena exhibits Disfarmer photographs

The Delta Cultural Center’s latest traveling exhibit, “Disfarmer Photographs: Heber Springs Circa 1945,” is on loan from the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock and is on display through Feb. 11 at the Delta Cultural Center Visitors Center, 141 Cherry St. in historic downtown Helena.

Mike Disfarmer (1884 – 1959) was a talented and eccentric man who photographed everyday life in Heber Springs from its glory days as a spa in the 1910s and 1920s through the Depression and World War II years.
After Disfarmer’s death in 1959, the studio he built was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Some of the glass plate negatives from the 1930s and 1940s were rediscovered and salvaged in the mid-1970s, just before the studio was demolished.

Since then, his compelling portraits have formed the basis for two books and several regional and national exhibitions.

Disfarmer’s photographs now sell for $10,000 or more.

The Helena exhibit is one of 15 traveling exhibitions available through the Arts Center’s State Services Department. Designed to be both educational and aesthetically appealing, these exhibits are organized by the Arts Center’s curatorial staff from the permanent collection or from artist loan.

All touring programs are supported, in part, by the Arkansas Arts Council, an agency of the Department of Arkansas Her-itage and the National Endow-ment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art.

For more information on the Arkansas Arts Center’s touring programs, call (501) 396-0350 or (800) 264-ARTS.

Other agencies within the department are the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Old State House Museum, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the Arkansas Arts Council and the Natural Heritage Commission.