"They're all horrified. They're all completely frightened"
, says Dan Hurlin, as he describes Disfarmer's subjects, "they're sitting in front of this guy who's barking at them and they don't know what to do"
. But despite being a surly loner of few words, through his beautiful photographs Disfarmer produced a unique and definitive cross-section of what small town USA looked like during the depression, because, "whoever came in got his picture taken, whether it was the mayor of the town or the paper boy."
What's astounding about the photos is their dynamism, the very tension between Disfarmer and his subjects bringing them to life. As the collector Michael Mattis says, from the country bumpkin scared stiff with her hair tied back, to the bemused trio of farm workers, the young boys posing like gangsters or the father and son with a dead deer, "The pictures are psychological bullets. They really go through the people and really capture what they're about"
. Disfarmer's eccentric personality drew out of people a realness and a presence, "Details you wouldn't find in a normal studio portrait"
Incredibly, the photos were very close to never seeing the light of day in the modern world. "I noticed this package came in to my desk"
, recounts Julia Scully Editor of Modern Photography magazine. "That package sat on my desk for probably at least a week before I got around to opening it. Anyway, I did open it one day... and I was just astonished. I thought, "Who are these people? Who's this photographer?""
But as she was to discover Disfarmer is an enigma. As one local describes him: "He's a mystery and he'll forever remain a mystery"
It's created one of the modern art world's great stories, as Dan Hurlin points out: "It's kind of a quintessentially American story, it's the loner who... is toiling alone and is completely forgotten and then turns out to be a genius."
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Official Selection, Hot Springs Film Festival