Sweet Sorrow

by Peter Brown

It is safe to say that Mike Disfarmer was a very odd man. Sometime during mid-life he broke off communication with his family, the Meyers, rice farmers who lived outside the small town of Heber Springs, Arkansas. He also broke with the Lutheran church — a self-imposed ostracism of sorts in this family-oriented Bible-Belt town, and he drank, though Heber Springs after the mid-i94os was dry. While appar­ently not unpleasant, he was virtually friendless. Strangest of all, he took on the name of Disfarmer, convinced inexplica­bly that a tornado had carried him away as an infant and had deposited him with a family not his own. He was not a Meyer, he maintained — a German word that he mistranslated as "farmer" (and an occupa­tion he abhorred) but a "Disfarmer" in­stead. Legally changing his name, he took up photography.

His main connection to Heber Springs then, and an ironically intimate one, was through his work. Mike Disfarmer, the Boo Radley of his world, the oddball bo­geyman of Heber Springs, still managed to photograph anyone who came through his studio doors — and people came, from Heber Springs and beyond, by the hundreds — on occasion lined up down the block. These portraits haunt me.

They are straight-forward and plain yet at the same time almost claustropho-bically creepy in a surface lushness ofwrinkles, sun-bleached cotton, shining skin, military garb, clean farm clothes and Sunday dress-up, all set against the sparest of studio backdrops. While one cannot finally know, the photographs seem, on evidence of expression and posture, to be truthful: open-faced de­pictions of a small American town at a specific time. In them there is a stead­iness that pulls one back, right back in­to that Main Street studio, back across all those miles of culture and time.

When a daguerreotype is opened, it uncases a world, and a soul from the deep past peers through a century into the present, questioning and strangely alive. Disfarmer's photographs produce the same secret, disquieting sensation in a viewer — one of a shared seriousness, of intimacy with the distant and the dead. The photographs are too stark to be sentimental and the people in them too vulnerable to put one off. Disfarmer's subjects simply look out to us as we look in. As the pages are turned and the book eventually closed, one is left with a strange lack of resolution as though those photo­graphed will not quite go away.

The book's design by Jack Woody is remarkable. A few descriptive points: the book is small enough to be easily held but has the heft of something serious. The cover is black with a young girl on the front and an old woman on the back. The pages are a matte black. The photo­graphs are small, contact prints from the original 31/2x5 inch glass plate negatives. And there are many: page after page of old people, soldiers, mothers, fathers, far­mers, young men and women, brothers and sisters, girlfriends, high school kids, little boys, men with large fish, little girls, babies. And on and on. There are no words beyond the title of the book until one has experienced the vast majority of the photographs, at which point, Julia Scully's text answers most of the questions that one might have.

There is something both exhausting and exhilarating about this procession. Exhausting in that one must look closely and think hard; exhilarating because here, if one takes the time, is a town. We fill in the gaps — and there are many. To my thought, the physical but unphotographed town of Heber Springs, coupled with its myriad untold stories, roll jointly beneaththese photographs like waves. One's imag­ined visions of Main Street, the stores, the high school, the movie house, the homes and farms, the trees and creeks, combined with the mute potential of all those unsaid words — the gossip, jokes, tragedies, crops, weather, crimes, holidays, pioneer paths and family histories — all those inciden­tals that describe these lives and at some point led these people first to Heber Springs and then to Mike Disfarmer's homely studio, float the photographs like cork. The design of the book melds the )tographs with this perceived history (the "photographic fiction" that Richard Avedon described but did not seem to capture in his photographs of the Amer­ican West) with the result being an expe­rience that is transporting.

In the background of all this hovers the World War II. Most of Disfarmer's subjects had never left Heber Springs, and we can assume that many of those pictured in the photos either are about to be shipped out to dangerous places or are about to be left behind. With the utili­tarian purpose of these photographs then likely being one of remembrance or a safeguard against death — and the yearn­ing looks an attempt to express all those things that are so difficult to express: Be careful; I love you; Come home safely; This is what I look like; Remember me; Please don't go. We must remember also that hovering in the background is the photographer, this strange Mike Dis­farmer who somehow has enabled these people to be free enough with their quiet, tentative expressions to communicate the same sorts of things to all of us today. This is what we look like; This is who we are; We want to be remembered; We care about you; We hope this is not good-bye.

Spend some time with this book, and these people may stay with you forever. •

Peter Brown is a Houston photographer, writer and teacher. His book on the Great Plains, with an
introduction by Kathleen Morris, will be published by DoubleTake/Norton next spring. An excerpt appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of DoubleTake.