I’ve been listening to the new Bill Frisell album, Disfarmer. I know he is considered to be a great guitarist, but I find his albums, with the exception of Good Dog, Happy Man, rather dreary and uninspiring – ‘gentle sweet nothings’, in the words of a BBC review. Despite the favourable reviews, this one doesn’t do it for me either, though there is a rather jaunty version of ‘It’s Alright Mama’.
Much more interesting, however, is what inspired the album and explains its strange title: the story of Mike Disfarmer a small town eccentric from Heber Springs, Arkansas. Disfarmer is an unusual name – because he made it up, changing his name to indicate a rift with both his kin and his agrarian surroundings. He was born Michael Meyer in 1884 and legally changed his name to Disfarmer to disassociate himself from the farming community in which he plied his trade and from his own kinfolk—claiming that a tornado had accidentally blown him onto the Meyer family farm as a baby.
But Disfarmer set up a portrait studio in Heber Springs and photographed members of the local community, producing portraits that endowed his subjects with a sense of dignity. His photographs capture the essence of a particular community at a particular time with solemnity and a touching simplicity. After his death in the 1950s the negatives and glass plates recording his portraits were rescued and eventually became widely known: the full story is here.
Explaining the inspiration for his album, Bill Frisell’ said:
I try to picture what went on in Disfarmer’s mind. How did he really feel about the people in this town? What was he thinking? What did he see? We’ll never know, but as I write the music, I’d like to imagine it coming from his point of view. The sound of him looking through the lens.
These art2art notes sum up Disfarmer’s significance as a photographer:
Despite his quirks, as the resident studio photographer in tiny Heber Springs, Arkansas, Disfarmer captured the faces of the American heartland at a defining period in history, as they struggled through the Depression and World War II.
Disfarmer is often compared to Walker Evans for his powerfully rendered Depression-era Southern subjects, and to August Sander for his rendering of “people without masks.” In turn, Richard Avedon acknowledged Disfarmer’s influence when he created In the American West.
In his biography, Rick Woodward writes, “Disfarmer is not cruel, patronizing or sentimental about [his subjects’] plight. But neither is he a friend or pastor. He is like a crime scene photographer, determined to record the details because the details are what ultimately will exonerate a person. The reality of their condition—the hats, creases in their jeans and dresses, lines in faces and hands, bad posture, dangling cigarettes and arms, staring eyes—can be preserved in a photograph and serve as existential evidence.”