Who Owns Mike Disfarmer’s Photographs?

One grey morning, in March, I drove with Stewart and his older sister, Sherry Atkins, from Little Rock to Heber Springs, about sixty miles due north. Stewart is sixty-three, with a style for Hawaiian shirts and a pleasant behavior of calling different males “brother.” He picked me up in his vivid blue Dodge Ram truck, the mattress of which was strewn with segments of ornamental curbs from his concrete enterprise. Atkins, who’s energetic and silver-haired, wore a Razorbacks shirt underneath a fringed denim jacket and sat within the again seat. We took a scenic route towards the Ozarks, previous cattle asleep on their sides, billboards quoting Bible verses, and the Greers Ferry Dam, the place John F. Kennedy spoke at a dedication ceremony the month earlier than his assassination. Road indicators finally welcomed us to Heber Springs (pop. 6,916). We looped across the mineral springs that give the city its identify, and Atkins recalled visiting them along with her grandmother to gather jugs of sulfur water. “She thought it would help her rheumatism,” Atkins mentioned. On Main Street, Stewart gestured towards a row of S.U.V.s within the car parking zone of an Eagle Bank & Trust. “That’s where his studio was,” he instructed me. “It had a great big skylight pointing toward the north.”

Heber Springs, in Disfarmer’s day, was a budding vacationer vacation spot. Vacationers rode in from across the South, on a brand new short-line railroad, to pattern the springs and keep in inns embellished with gingerbread trim. Disfarmer arrived on the town, along with his mom, in 1914, on the age of thirty, from Stuttgart, Arkansas, a German enclave the place he’d labored because the night time watchman at a mill. (His father, a rice farmer who’d fought for the Union, died when Disfarmer was about fourteen.) As along with his different inventive pursuit, fiddle enjoying, Disfarmer’s images abilities could have been self-taught, although some sources say that he underwent an apprenticeship. In Heber Springs, he arrange store at websites just like the native theatre, the place folks would drop by, after vaudeville acts, to sit down for portraits in entrance of a trompe-l’oeil backdrop of a Roman temple. He lived along with his mom till a twister flattened her dwelling, on Thanksgiving Day, in 1926. She moved in with a relative, and he relocated to the studio on Main Street, a single-story stucco construction with dwelling quarters separated from the work space by a curtain.

The few surviving pictures of Disfarmer present a long-faced man with skinny lips that pucker inward. Even in a high hat and three-piece swimsuit, he seems to be grim and considerably dishevelled. His contemporaries described an “Ichabod-type feller” who rode about city on his horse, with a digicam and tripod on the prepared. For all of the disarming intimacy of his portraiture, Disfarmer was by most accounts a cold presence within the studio. “Instead of telling you to smile, he just took the photo—no ‘cheese’ or anything,” one former buyer recalled, within the seventies. Nonetheless, his enterprise attracted churchgoing households, native baseball gamers, teen-agers on first dates, and droves of farmers from the encircling countryside. “Mike had the world by the tail, and it was a downward pull, because he didn’t have no competition,” his final studio assistant, Bessie Utley, as soon as mentioned. “They’d line up just like it was a bargain basement.”

In the fifties, Disfarmer’s well being declined, and he ventured out much less. Children lingered close to his studio and made a sport of fleeing on the sight of him. One of Disfarmer’s sisters recalled that, when she and a gaggle of kin stopped by Heber Springs towards the top of his life, he requested them to go away. But household letters relate just a few hotter encounters. Roy Fricker, Disfarmer’s late nephew, paid a go to to the studio along with his spouse, Louise, in 1958, simply months earlier than neighbors found Disfarmer useless on the ground. When the couple left, Disfarmer took the uncharacteristic step of strolling them out to shake fingers and say farewell. A photograph taken by Roy that day reveals the outdated man standing on the fringe of a subject, sporting rumpled garments and a wide-brimmed hat. His fingers are tucked behind his again to cover two cans of beer, the Frickers’ parting reward.

A self-portrait of Disfarmer, from circa 1950. His contemporaries described an “Ichabod-type feller” who generally rode about city on horseback with a digicam and tripod on the prepared.

Some longtime residents of Heber Springs have bored with listening to from outsiders with a stake within the Disfarmer story. Jeannie McGary, who’s in her seventies, was photographed by Disfarmer as a child. A veteran volunteer on the native historic society, she’s given excursions of Disfarmer’s work to European curators, documentary filmmakers, and, on a number of events, his heirs. She instructed me that she was skeptical of the motives behind their authorized dispute. If Disfarmer hadn’t turn out to be as well-known as he did, “I don’t think anybody would be interested now,” she mentioned. Ellen Hobgood, who owns an artwork gallery in Heber Springs, discovered it onerous to consider that Disfarmer’s kin had solely lately turn out to be conscious of his fame. An artist herself, Hobgood focuses on giant acrylic work of Santa Claus, which have been reproduced, along with her permission, on a regional firm’s tins of pecan toffee. She mentioned that in idea she sympathized with the victims of copyright infringement. But, if Disfarmer’s heirs needed a component in his legacy, she added, “They should have said something sooner.”

In Heber Springs, Stewart and Atkins stayed within the truck whereas I explored Main Street, a sleepy stretch of small companies, together with a espresso joint known as the Jitterbug and a film theatre with an Art Deco marquee. A listening to associated to the Disfarmer case was scheduled for the next month, in probate court docket, to handle the custody of the glass-plate negatives, and the siblings have been cautious of being seen with a reporter. In such a small city, Stewart instructed me, the information might get again to the decide and provides the impression that the household was “trying to build a sympathy case with the public.”

Deal was now not working for them. The earlier March, simply days earlier than the coronavirus pandemic introduced journey to a halt, he’d flown in from Virginia for a gathering concerning the case with Disfarmer’s household at Murry’s, a roadside restaurant east of Little Rock. More than thirty kin from throughout the nation wore nametags and gathered in a again room. A granddaughter of Disfarmer’s eldest brother, who had travelled from Connecticut, instructed me that Deal sat at her desk however stored to himself. While ready for his plate of barbecue, he stood as much as clarify that he’d been focussing his authorized efforts on the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation, which owns the glass-plate negatives. The basis appeared amenable to a settlement, Deal mentioned, and he anticipated to have a draft of a proposed settlement quickly.

A number of weeks later, he introduced one to the household. Under the phrases of the settlement, the inspiration would pay the household 100 and fifty thousand {dollars}. In alternate, the inspiration, together with Peter Miller and the Group, can be launched from future legal responsibility, and the museum would retain the “permanent right” to exhibit the glass-plate negatives. Deal instructed me that anticipating something extra would have been unrealistic, given the complexities of the case. For occasion, even when the household managed to acquire the negatives, they’d have to safe copyrights earlier than they may legally make prints or sue for infringement. That can be tough, as a result of Disfarmer had made his pictures lengthy earlier than the Copyright Act bolstered its protections for artists. Other authorized professionals I consulted concerning the case agreed that it was, as one put it, “unsatisfyingly murky.”

To Disfarmer’s kin, although, Deal’s proposal was an insult. The contract allowed the household solely two days a yr to “view, inspect, and inventory” the negatives, and made no point out of manufacturing or promoting prints. Soon after Deal introduced the draft, they fired him. (In an e-mail, the inspiration’s legal professionals instructed me that they may not touch upon confidential settlement proceedings however that “many of the purported facts conveyed by Mr. Disfarmer’s heirs about the negotiations are wrong.”) Over lunch outdoors Heber Springs—which we ate within the automotive, due to COVID—Stewart retrieved a rumpled, annotated copy of the doc from a black file. “They thought they could just give us some money and we’d throw our hands up and praise God,” he instructed me, between bites of fried catfish from a Styrofoam container. “That’s piddling. That’s just them trying to sweep us under the carpet.” The worst half, in his thoughts, was that the inspiration had proven so little religion in Disfarmer’s kin as stewards of his archive.

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