Gold in them hills.
Hot dog! My mother, Lee Bowren, has several of those original prints at her home in Floral (Independence County), including what's left of one of the most striking: "Mother in Striped Dress Holding Daughter." The woman is Audrey Marie Sharp Martin, my grandmother, and the daughter is her ninth and last child, my Aunt Ann.
Granny Martin and several of her children traveled from their home in Concord, in the northeast corner of Cleburne County, to Heber Springs in May or June 1944 to have Ann's picture made. She wanted to send it to her first-born son, who was 18 and had left for the Army a month before Ann was born.
According to my morn, Ann wouldn't cooperate when Disfarmer--an odd bird who had changed his name from Mike Meyers in pointed rejection of his family's farming roots--tried to take her picture propped up on a pillow, so he put her in her mother's lap.
My grandmother hated the results. She tore her face off the photo, leaving only her body and the baby with the head full of dark hair. On the back she wrote, "The baby is 4 months and I look 100."
She was actually 36, but she had a case of walking pneumonia and had not prepared to have her picture made. Life was hard in Concord for a woman with nine children spread out over 18 years--but not quite as hard as her picture makes it look.
During that same outing, two of my mother's younger brothers, Weldon, 5, and Lowell, 3, were also photographed. It's one of the sweetest pictures ever made: hats, overalls and Suspicious, quizzical expressions.
My mother's not selling.
Peter Miller, the Little Rock personal injury lawyer who was publisher of the Arkansas Sun in Heber Springs in the mid-1970s, bought some 3,000 of the glass-plate negatives and has used them in two well-received books on the genius that was Disfarmer. My grandparents, who had moved to Michigan in the early 1950s, lived to see the despised photo on display at the Arkansas Arts Center in 1976.
Miller and I had previously discussed our mutual connection to Disfarmer, so I called him last week after reading the New York Times article. He was painfully aware of Steven Kasher and Michael Mattis, the two dealers who separately bought up some 3,400 original Disfarmer prints. He described them as "two slick New York art promoters" who "talked people into selling them things out of their family albums."
My mother said she had heard of locals selling Disfarmer prints for as much as $800 and the promise of high-quality copies to replace them. Nice money for postcard-sized prints, but chump change next to the thousands and tens of thousands the New York galleries are asking. (It remains to be seen if the market will bear those asking prices.)
"I've talked to them. I don't think too much of what they've done," Miller told me, dismissing Kasher and Mattis' interest in the photos as sheer profiteering.
"I'm interested in the work as art; I'm not interested in the work as commerce," said Miller, who donated most of the negatives to the Arkansas Arts Center.
He does sell prints made directly from the original Disfarmer negatives for $800 through an exclusive arrangement with the Howard Greenberg Gallery of New York. You can see the astonishing selection online at Disfarmer.com, which is where I grabbed the copyrighted photo that appears with this column.
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|Title Annotation:||Editor's Note|
|Date:||Aug 29, 2005|
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