Who owns the photographs of Mike Disfarmer?


One gray morning in March, I drove with Stewart and his older sister, Sherry Atkins, from Little Rock to Heber Springs, about sixty miles north. Stewart is sixty-three years old, with a taste for Hawaiian shirts and a friendly habit of calling other men “brother.” He picked me up in his bright blue Dodge Ram truck, the bed of which was littered with decorative edging segments from his concrete business. Atkins, who is crisp and silver-haired, wore a Razorbacks shirt under a fringed denim jacket and sat in the backseat. We took a scenic drive to the Ozarks, past sleeping cattle on their side, billboards quoting Bible verses, and the Greers Ferry Dam, where John F. Kennedy spoke in a dedication ceremony the month before his assassination. Road signs finally greeted us in Heber Springs (6,916 people). We took a tour of the mineral springs that gave the town its name, and Atkins remembered visiting them with his grandmother to collect jugs of sulphurous water. “She thought it would help her rheumatism,” Atkins said. On Main Street, Stewart gestured towards a row of SUVs in the parking lot of an Eagle Bank & Trust. “This is where his studio was,” he told me. “There was a large skylight pointing north. “

Heber Springs, during Disfarmer’s days, was a nascent tourist destination. Vacationers came from the south, on a new local railway, to sample the springs and stay in hotels decorated with gingerbread toppings. Disfarmer came to town, with his mother, in 1914, at the age of thirty, from Stuttgart, Arkansas, a German enclave where he had worked as a night watchman in a windmill. (His father, a rice farmer who had fought for the Union, died when Disfarmer was about fourteen.) As with his other creative activity, the violin, Disfarmer’s photographic skills may have been self-taught, although some sources say he underwent an apprenticeship. In Heber Springs, he took to sites like the local theater, where people would pass by, after acts of vaudeville, to sit for portraits in front of a trompe-l’oeil backdrop of a Roman temple. He lived with his mother until a tornado razed his house on Thanksgiving Day in 1926. She moved in with a relative and he moved into the Main Street studio, a stucco structure in a floor with living quarters separated from the work area. by a curtain.

The few surviving photographs from Disfarmer show a long-faced man with thin lips puckering inward. Even in a top hat and three-piece suit, he looks dark and somewhat disheveled. His contemporaries described an “Ichabod-type slaughterer” who rode around town on his horse, with a camera and a tripod in his hand. Despite all the disarming privacy of his portrayal, Disfarmer was, by most accounts, a cold presence in the studio. “Instead of telling you to smile, he just took the picture – no ‘cheese’ or anything,” recalls a former customer from the Seventies. Nonetheless, his business has drawn practicing families, local baseball players, teenagers on their first dates, and crowds of farmers from the surrounding countryside. “Mike had the world by the tail, and it was a pull down because he had no competition,” his last studio assistant, Bessie Utley, once said. “They lined up like it was a cheap basement.”

In the fifties, Disfarmer’s health declined and he ventured less. Children lingered near his workshop and played an escape game at his sight. One of Disfarmer’s sisters recalled that when she and a group of parents stopped in Heber Springs near the end of her life, he asked them to leave. But family letters tell of some warmer encounters. Roy Fricker, Disfarmer’s nephew, visited the studio with his wife, Louise, in 1958, just months before neighbors found Disfarmer dead on the floor. When the couple left, Disfarmer made the unusual decision to take them out to shake their hands and say goodbye. A photo Roy took that day shows the old man standing at the edge of a field, wearing wrinkled clothes and a wide-brimmed hat. His hands are hidden behind his back to hide two cans of beer, the Frickers’ farewell gift.

A self-portrait by Disfarmer, from around 1950. His contemporaries described an “Ichabod-type slaughterer” who sometimes rode the city on horseback with a camera and a tripod in his hand.

Some longtime residents of Heber Springs are fed up with hearing from strangers with an interest in Disfarmer’s history. Jeannie McGary, in her seventies, was photographed by Disfarmer as a baby. A seasoned volunteer at the local historical society, she has shown Disfarmer’s work to European curators, documentary filmmakers and, on several occasions, his heirs. She told me that she was skeptical of the grounds for their legal dispute. If Disfarmer hadn’t become as famous as he is, “I don’t think anyone would be interested now,” she said. Ellen Hobgood, who owns an art gallery in Heber Springs, found it hard to believe that those close to Disfarmer had only recently become aware of her fame. An artist herself, Hobgood specializes in large acrylic paintings of Santa Claus, which were reproduced, with her permission, on tins of pecan caramel from a regional company. She said that in theory she sympathizes with victims of copyright infringement. But, if Disfarmer’s heirs wanted to be part of her legacy, she added, “They should have said something sooner.”

In Heber Springs, Stewart and Atkins stayed in the truck as I explored Main Street, a sleepy neighborhood of small businesses, including a cafe called Jitterbug and a movie theater with an Art Deco marquee. A hearing related to the Disfarmer case was scheduled for the following month in probate court to discuss the custody of the glass plate negatives, and the siblings feared they would be seen with a reporter. In such a small town, Stewart told me, the news could get back to the judge and make it sound like the family were “trying to build a case of sympathy with the public.”

Deal was no longer working for them. In the previous March, just days before the coronavirus pandemic cut off the trip, he had come from Virginia for a meeting on the case with Disfarmer’s family at Murry’s, a roadside restaurant east of Little Rock. More than thirty family members from across the country wore badges and gathered in a back room. A granddaughter of Disfarmer’s older brother, who had traveled from Connecticut, told me that Deal was sitting at his table but was left alone. While waiting for his barbecue plate, he stood up to explain that he had focused his legal efforts on the Arkansas Art Gallery Foundation, which owns the glass plate negatives. The foundation appeared to lend itself to a settlement, Deal said, and he expected to have a draft deal proposed soon.

A few weeks later, he presented one to the family. Under the terms of the agreement, the foundation would pay the family one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. In return, the foundation, along with Peter Miller and the Group, would be released from any future liability and the museum would retain the “permanent right” to exhibit the glass plate negatives. Deal told me that to expect anything more would have been unrealistic, given the complexity of the matter. For example, even if the family were successful in obtaining the negatives, they would need to obtain the copyright before they could legally make prints or sue for infringement. This would be tricky, as Disfarmer had taken his photographs long before the Copyright Act strengthened its protections for artists. Other legal professionals that I have consulted regarding the matter agreed that it was, as one of them put it, “unsatisfactory trouble”.

To those close to Disfarmer, however, Deal’s proposal was an insult. The contract only allowed the family two days a year to “view, inspect and inventory” the negatives, and made no mention of the production or sale of prints. Shortly after Deal introduced the project, they fired him. (In an email, lawyers for the foundation told me that they could not comment on the confidential settlement proceedings but that “a lot of the facts allegedly passed on by Mr. Disfarmer’s heirs about the negotiations are false. »We ate in the car, because of COVID– Stewart retrieved a crumpled, annotated copy of the document from a black file. “They thought they could just give us some money and we would put our hands up and praise God,” he told me, between bites of fried catfish in a Styrofoam container. “It’s boring. It’s just them trying to sweep us under the rug. The worst thing, in his mind, was that the foundation had so little faith in Disfarmer’s parents as custodians of its records.


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