Disfarmer — The Puppet Version

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Over the weekend I made it out to St. Ann’s Warehouse, a performance space in Brooklyn, to catch one of the last performances of Disfarmer. This was a sort of bunraku puppet performance of episodes from the life of the seriously eccentric photographer Mike Disfarmer. That’s right, eat your heart out — we have everything in New York, including bunraku-puppet photographer-bioplays with live banjo and accordion accompaniment. (Which attracted a full house, at least at the matinee performance I was at.) And which are, by the way, just the kind of thing that ought to be supported, but won’t be, in any final stimulus package. Everyone connected to this show is a working person, who will spend money in the future if they have any.

But I digress. For more than forty years, until his death in 1959, Disfarmer operated a portrait studio in the tiny Arkansas town of Heber Springs. He photographed whoever came by, on glass plate negatives, in the northern light he insisted upon, with a powerfully direct address. He brought the photographic practices of the 19th-century into the 20th, and the effect was to make every face and body simultaneously eternal and perfectly of its moment.

I’ve known his pictures since they first surfaced in the 1970s. But I didn’t know much about his life, and I’m not sure whether Dan Hurdlin, the puppeteer who conceived this show, and Sally Oswald, who wrote the minimalist text, make him seem stranger even than he was. Which was, lets be clear, strange enough. For one thing, he famously changed his name from Meyer to Disfarmer to emphasize that he wasn’t a farmer. He also stated publicly that he had been blown away in infancy by a tornado and landed on his adoptive parents doorstep. Whether he believed this or just meant it as poetic hyperbole I don’t know. There’s a Disfarmer documentary in the works that may make it all clearer.

But while I was watching this show I was reminded of that observation about small sculptures that I quoted from John Updike last week.

They were in their smallness like secret thoughts of mine projected into dimension and permanence, and they returned to me as a response that carried strangely into parts of my body.

Changes of scale produce a strangeness that imprint an image on your brain differently. Because the puppet that represents Disfarmer lives in his own little scaled-to-fit dollhouse world, he leaves a deeper, stranger impress on your mind. Two days after seeing that show, I’ve still got this toddling, beer-guzzling old man in my head. He’s a three-foot tall puppet. He’s located just so in my brain. And he won’t go away.

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