It can be a long trip from Heber Springs to Little Rock. The one we're writing about here started in the early 20th century, when a photographer who claimed to have been blown to his parents' doorstep by a tornado and who subsisted in his later years only on chocolate ice cream set up shop in Heber. Mike Disfarmer took portraits of the townspeople from the teens to the 1950s, and the starkly honest pictures — thanks both to the photographer and the persons photographed — have come to be much celebrated as an unadorned view of rural America.
He might be forgotten today had not a man who'd bought the Disfarmer studio in 1959 for $5 not seen fit to come forward in 1974 to answer a request by a reporter for the Heber Springs paper for old photographs. Retired Army engineer Joe Allbright had found 4,000 glass-plate negatives in the studio. The reporter (now Little Rock's most famous smiling lawyer), Peter Miller, was so impressed that he and the editor of Modern Photography, Julia Scully, put out a book introducing Disfarmer's work to the wider world in 1976. Photographs were subsequently made from those plates, but as for the pictures Disfarmer took himself, they were squirreled away in photo albums and shoeboxes and trunks in homes in Cleburne County.
In 2004, New Yorker Michael Mattis, a collector of photographs (and a particle physicist), was offered 50 vintage Disfarmer prints from a Chicago couple formerly from Heber Springs. He decided to scour Heber in search of original Disfarmers. He enlisted artist and former Chicago photograph dealer Hava Gurevich to head up a team of people to canvas residents — going down every country road, he says — to buy what vintage shots remained. (He wasn't alone; another New York collector was also busy acquiring as many Disfarmers as he could.)
Gurevich approached the search as a historian: She interviewed folks, recorded oral histories and researched the area. That information will now be part of a documentary film, “Disfarmer: A Portrait of America,” to be released later this year.
Which brings us to the Historic Arkansas Museum. HAM curator Patricia Grant and Gurevich hit it off last year at a museum conference in Little Rock because both were vegetarians “in a sea of barbecue,” Grant said. Persuaded that HAM was a fitting repository for Disfarmer, Gurevich arranged for the donation of vintage prints to the museum. They were donated by Gurevich's parents, Yuri and Zoe Gurevich of Redmond, Wash., and another collector, Stephen Osman, of Stamford, Conn. Since those gifts were made, Grant said, three more prints and a glass negative have been donated.
Disfarmer sold the prints for a quarter, Grant said. Their value today is substantial. According to the New York Times, a gallery there made $1 million off a single show of Disfarmer's work in 2005; prints were selling for as much as $30,000.
Disfarmer, believing himself borne by whirlwinds to his home, would probably have seen something mystical in the circuitous movement of photos from his studio to local attics to dealers on the East and West coasts before spinning back Arkansas.
Overheard recently, as The Observer's dinosaur-obsessed 4-year-old nephew and his 5-year-old sister were playing in the next room:
Niece: “Pretend I'm a three-horn, only stronger.”
Nephew: “OK, but pretend I can stop you.”