Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Sound of Looking

Some of my best times are the times spent looking at the world through the lens of a Nikon.

Photo by Michael Disfarmer

Regardless of results, the process of discovery has me hooked. The best photographs convey something beyond the visible. And that’s the magic for which there’s no easy formula. Any time I go to Old Bald and the Great Divide I think about this – and the challenge of photographing a slant-eyed giant. Believing it can be done, I’ll keep trying.

Admittedly, I’m not much of a people photographer. There are times I long to have the boldness to walk up to someone…aim…and shoot. But I lack that. And so, some good photo ops slip away. A sunny afternoon in Barnardsville…a bunch of old timers in bib overalls…rared back in their chairs outside a mom and pop store. Missed that one.

And Lexington Avenue in Asheville. Everytime I go there and see the counter culture parade (if that’s what you can call it) my trigger finger gets itchy. Maybe some day I’ll figure out a plausible way to say “Whoa…can I take your picture?”

But it hasn’t happened yet.

What inspired this particular rumination is the music of guitarist Bill Frisell…specifically, his recording, Disfarmer, which celebrates the photographer, Michael Disfarmer. Maybe I can borrow a page from Michael Disfarmer and learn to start taking those portraits I’ve been missing.

Michael Disfarmer

Here’s how Bill Frisell himself tells it:

The photos alone would inspire music, but the mystery surrounding Disfarmer’s bizarre life really adds another dimension. I thought it would be important to actually visit Heber Springs, Arkansas, smell the air, talk to some people, taste the food, so that the music wouldn’t be coming only from what I had seen or read in a book. My wife and I decided to take a drive. We started in North Carolina, went through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, stopped in Clarksdale (home of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Son House, etc., etc.), and crossed the Mississippi River into Helena, Arkansas, and on up to Heber Springs. Driving through this part of the country gives you a lot to think about—where we’ve been, where we’re going.

After lunch at the Rustic Inn, I was so fortunate to meet and talk with Tom Olmstead, who was very generous with his time and information. Tom is the funeral director in Heber Springs and has lived there his whole life. As a young boy, he had his photo taken by Disfarmer and described his gruff, impatient way with his subjects. “Made you feel uncomfortable.” Tom said. He talked about how Disfarmer always wore a black suit, black hat, and heavy mohair overcoat in any kind of weather. He wandered the streets all night long. Disfarmer would appear seemingly out of nowhere, a big dark shape, scaring the kids to death. He never talked to anybody. Everybody was afraid of him.

Bill Frisell

Years later, as a young man, Tom Olmstead and his father buried Disfarmer. They found his body days after he had died—alone in the photo studio where he had lived—covered with mice and surrounded with cans of Spam. Tom’s father said, “You never know, someday this man might be famous.” They gave him a proper burial and even donated a head stone monument. I kept thinking about the many other misunderstood, unsung artists who never had the recognition they deserved during their own time—Vermeer, Van Gogh, Charles Ives, Henry Darger, etc. etc. I wonder who is here now?

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.

Disfarmer: A Portrait of America - Trailer 2:30 mins. from Dennis Mohr on Vimeo.

More at http://www.disfarmer.org/ - official site of the Disfarmer Project.

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