November 7, 2014

Becoming Disfarmer

Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, SUNY
Mike Disfarmer, Earl Lang, ca. 1935. Gelatin silver
print, 3.75 x 2.75 inches.*

For almost 40 years, local residents of and visitors to Heber Springs, Arkansas, could get their pictures taken for a mere 25 cents (50 cents for three) by one of the commercial photographers in town—Mike Disfarmer—an eccentric, whose postcard-sized portraits, made between 1915 and 1959, vividly and artfully depicted everyday people in rural America. Farmers in overalls, adolescents in prom attire, housewives in flowered dresses and thick hairnets, enlisted men in uniform, all posed for the pictures, which often made their way into family albums or bureau drawers. These “penny portraits” became more than simple photographs, however, as following their first major debut as artworks in 1977, critics believed they unfailingly captured the essence of their subjects and periods of history in which they lived.

Beginning November 9, the Neuberger Museum of Art of Purchase College, SUNY will present Becoming Disfarmer, the first museum exhibition in the New York metropolitan region to include examples of Disfarmer’s restored and unrestored vintage prints, made between 1925 and 1950, enlargements made posthumously from 1976–2005 from his glass plate negatives dated 1939–1946, as well as audio clips, historical journals, newspapers, and other ephemera.

In this exhibition, the original function of the photographs as intimate family keepsakes will be acknowledged through an installation featuring the inscribed fronts and backs of several photographs. There also will be several unrestored portraits, sometimes valued more for their creases and tears than for their imagery. The exhibition, curated by Chelsea Spengemann, an independent scholar, is a critical examination of Disfarmer’s work as well as the first museum survey to consider the ways in which Disfarmer’s vernacular photographs have been revalued and recast. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition with essays by the curator and writers Gil Blank and Tanya Sheehan. Generous support for Becoming Disfarmer has been provided by the Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art and by ArtsWestchester, with support from the Westchester County Government.

According to Ms. Spengemann some collectors declined to participate in the exhibition because the majority of the vintage photographs that she selected for the exhibition were neither iconic nor in the finest condition, which those collectors understood to be disparaging toward the legacy of Disfarmer, rather than important to the scholarship being presented about the vernacular history of the portraits. As Tracy Fitzpatrick, Chief Curator of the Neuberger Museum of Art, notes, “Close examination can’t occur in a vacuum. By showing only iconic work, you tell a very narrow story and wind up supporting some of the less positive forces of the art market. Disfarmer’s vintage prints in their current state, worn and handled, say something about their past function, about a community and a place. And showing them in combination with posthumous prints tells another story that is also important. Sometimes the past is made clearer within the context of the present.”

Becoming Disfarmer, then, is about the photographs and their histories, and the photographer and his posthumous reception.

Open House 
Sunday, November 9, 1–3pm
Free and open to the public

Panel discussion with the curator
Sunday, November 9, 3pm
Chelsea Spengemann discusses how Disfarmer’s commercial studio photographs, made between 1914 and 1959 in Heber Springs, Arkansas, were revalued and recast as art twice, in 1977 and again in 2005. Panelists Hava Gurevich, Executive Director of the Disfarmer Project; Peter Miller, conservator of Disfarmer’s negatives; and Tanya Sheehan, contributor to the exhibition catalogue and associate professor of art at Colby College, bring widely varying perspectives to the discussion. Their conversation will address the meaning of Disfarmer’s portraits and locate them as objects from the past with resonance in a present, critical moment of thinking about photography.

Family Second Saturdays: Portraiture
Saturday, November 8, 1–4pm.
When Mike Disfarmer photographed local people in his Arkansas studio, he created portraits that could be used to tell a story. In this workshop, participants will create their own portraits, imagine a story to go with them, and share them with family and friends.


*Mike Disfarmer, Earl Lang, ca. 1935. Gelatin silver print, 3.75 x 2.75 inches. Stamp: “The Meyer Studio, Heber Springs, Ark., 083545.” Collection Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York. Anonymous gift.

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