Three things make a great documentary; riveting subject matter, a clear structure, aesthetic and narrative coherence; an engaging commentary and/or witness statements. Disfarmer manages all three of these in spades and the experienced documentarist Martin Lavut provides a riveting 52 minutes of entertainment and enlightenment.
The oddly named Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959) was a portrait photographer in a small country town in Arkansas, operating throughout the 1930s to late 1950s. He changed his name from Meyer and was undoubtedly a local eccentric. He also took extraordinary photographs of the ordinary people of the region – formal studies of men, women and children who stood in front of a simple black or occasionally white backdrop. But somehow he caught these people in largely unsmiling poses, revealing something about themselves. For many years after his death his work remained simply as a collection of family photos held by numerous individuals in the region. Then a small archive was discovered by a New Yorker who moved to Arkansas. A book of prints followed and then, several years later, Disfarmer prints began to become collectable and a gallery showing followed, ‘institutionalising’ the Arkansas man as an American photographic artist.
Lavut’s film tells this story concisely, clearly and with panache. The ‘witnesses’ include people who knew him in Heber Springs, Arkansas – both as a businessman and as the photographer who ‘frightened’ them as children – and the collectors, buyers and gallery owners from New York. I’ve rarely heard a more eloquent and open bunch. The septuagenarians from the South were most entertaining – as was the music from Bill Frisell.
Here’s a clip from the film showing both the photographs and the witnesses:
The Disfarmer website offers a chance to study (and buy) more of the images.