THE DISFARMER PROJECT
President: Michael Mattis
Executive Director: Hava Gurevich
The Disfarmer Project is devoted to the reconstitution and study of Disfarmer's life and work.
The legendary Mike Disfarmer is considered one of the great portraitists in the history of photography. As the resident studio photographer in Heber Springs, Arkansas, he captured the faces of the American heartland at a defining time in history in which the Great Depression yielded to World War II, and the sons of the farm donned their country's uniform and headed off to foreign shores. He was also a true American eccentric: born Mike Meyer in 1884, he legally changed his name to Disfarmer to disassociate himself, not only from the farming community in which he plied his trade, but from his own kinfolk – claiming that a tornado had accidentally blown him onto the Meyer family farm as a baby.
Previously, Disfarmer's work was known only from a cache of glass-plate negatives that had been salvaged from his studio after his death by former Heber Springs mayor Joe Allbright. The Disfarmer Project was launched in February 2004, when New York photo collector Michael Mattis was offered the family collection of fifty vintage Disfarmers assembled by a young couple who had grown up in Heber Springs and recently relocated to Chicago. Recognizing a unique historical opportunity, Mattis quickly trained and mobilized a dedicated team of historically-minded locals; over a two-year period they combed nearly every back road in Cleburne County in search of Disfarmer originals, ultimately unearthing well over 3000 photographs.
From the outset, an integral part of The Disfarmer Project has involved educating the Cleburne County community that their albums of old family photos are likely to contain objects of significant artistic and cultural value that could – and indeed should – be brought to the attention of a wider audience. To this end, art researcher Hava Gurevich joined the project to gather oral history and perform geneological research. In addition, The Disfarmer Project worked closely with the Cleburne County Historical Society, providing materials for exhibitions that celebrate Disfarmer's achievement.
Prior to The Disfarmer Project, all published Disfarmer portraits dated from the short period 1939-46 corresponding to the dates of Allbright's cache of glass negatives. Perhaps the most noteworthy accomplishment of The Disfarmer Project has been the uncovering of original prints spanning Disfarmer's full 40-year career in Heber Springs. Dated examples in the collection range from 1917 to 1956.