Mike Disfarmer snapped portraits of anyone and everyone in the small town of Heber Springs, Ark. The photos spanned a period from the Great Depression through World War II. The black and white pictures ranged from the intent stares of a set of twins in tight curls and rumpled housecoats to a cocksure G.I. with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip.
Guitarist Bill Frisell composed a series of musical vignettes based on Disfarmer's work for a new album appropriately called Disfarmer.
"At first I was attracted to the photos themselves, but then there's this whole story that starts to emerge of the man himself," Frisell says. "He was pretty much unknown while he was alive. And 20 years later, the photos are uncovered and [Disfarmer is] suddenly thought of as a genius."
Frisell drove to Heber Springs, Ark., where Disfarmer took the photographs. He wanted to meet people who lived there and happened to get lucky when he met Tom Olmstead, the town's funeral director. Olmstead not only had his picture taken by Disfarmer as a boy, but he and his father discovered Disfarmer's body after the photographer died. Olmstead provided Frisell with a wealth of stories.
Mike Disfarmer was born Mike Meyers. Frisell tells host Guy Raz that Disfarmer mistakenly thought that "Meyers" meant "farmer."
"He was trying to disassociate himself with his family and the community around there. So he decided to be Disfarmer," Frisell says. "You can tell he was a pretty contrary person."
Disfarmer was rude to the people he photographed and made them feel uncomfortable, but Frisell says that wasn't his aim. He was more interested in the photo itself.
"People weren't really posing. They never really knew when the photo was going to be taken," Frisell says. "In that way you get this really honest picture of those folks."