What Happens to Your Life’s Work Afterlife?

Left: Mike Disfarmer, Untitled, Heber Springs, AK, c. 1940, Vintage gelatin silver contact print, Printed by the photographer, c. 1940. Houk Gallery
Right: Mike Disfarmer, Self-portrait c. 1950

Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959), estranged from family members, was a loner who owned and operated a portrait studio in Herber Springs, Arkansas. For pocket change, locals would pose for a photograph to commemorate just about anything. Individuals and groups sat for formal or informal portraits—all of which had an honest, stark austerity about them—unlike portraiture of the time.

To achieve these authentic qualities, Disfarmer would startle his subjects by clanging a cowbell or firing a flash just before capturing their image and thus capturing life in the rural south from the 1930s through the 1950s. Each session provided customers with three postcard-sized prints made from glass-plate negatives.

In 1959, Mike Disfarmer was found dead in his studio. Without family ties, his burial expenses were covered by his estate. After his death, his studio was left fallow for the next two years until a commercial developer became interested in the property. Prior to leveling Disfarmer’s studio, the mayor of Herber Springs purchased the contents for five dollars. The contents, which included Disfarmer’s lifework of glass-plate negatives, sat in a garage for more than ten years. Through a paltry investment, the collection found its way to Peter Miller, a University of Iowa college student. Fortunately, the collection landed in the hands of a photo enthusiast who recognized the potential significance of Disfarmer’s work. In Miller’s home darkroom, the glass-plate negatives were restored and printed.

In 1974, Miller sent examples of Disfarmer’s work to the editor of Modern Photography. In 1976, Miller and the magazine’s editor found a publisher to publish Disfarmer: The Herber Springs Portraits. An exhibition at the International Center of Photography coincided with the book’s release. It was in his afterlife that loner, Mike Disfarmer was being compared to Diane Arbus and Irving Penn. His prints were hung in galleries with the works of Walker Evans and Edward Weston. He was heralded as one of the great portraitists of the twentieth century. Through this exposure, Disfarmer achieved fame, artistic stature, and became the subject of a modern-day legal battle concerning ownership and copyright infringement.

As with all legal battles, this one has many players and interested parties. Gallery owners, sixty distant family members, and the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation (who currently has possession of the archives) are all pitted against one another. Sadly, Mike Disfarmer’s afterlife has become quite serious, convoluted, and messy. You can read all about it in Eren Orbey’s article in The New Yorker, “Who Owns Mike Disfarmer’s Photographs.”

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