One gray 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 taste for Hawaiian shirts and a friendly habit of calling other men “brother.” He picked me up in his bright blue Dodge Ram truck, the bed of which was strewn with segments of decorative curbs from his concrete business. Atkins, who is lively and silver-haired, wore a Razorbacks shirt under a fringed denim jacket and sat in the back seat. We took a scenic route toward the Ozarks, past cattle asleep on their sides, billboards quoting Bible verses, and the Greers Ferry Dam, where John F. Kennedy spoke at a dedication ceremony the month before his assassination. Road signs eventually welcomed us to Heber Springs (pop. 6,916). We looped around the mineral springs that give the town its name, and Atkins recalled visiting them with her grandmother to collect jugs of sulfur water. “She thought it would help her rheumatism,” Atkins said. On Main Street, Stewart gestured toward a row of S.U.V.s in the parking lot of an Eagle Bank & Trust. “That’s where his studio was,” he told me. “It had a great big skylight pointing toward the north.”
Heber Springs, in Disfarmer’s day, was a budding tourist destination. Vacationers rode in from around the South, on a new short-line railroad, to sample the springs and stay in hotels decorated with gingerbread trim. Disfarmer arrived in town, with his mother, in 1914, at the age of thirty, from Stuttgart, Arkansas, a German enclave where he’d worked as the night watchman at a mill. (His father, a rice farmer who’d fought for the Union, died when Disfarmer was about fourteen.) As with his other creative pursuit, fiddle playing, Disfarmer’s photography skills may have been self-taught, though some sources say that he underwent an apprenticeship. In Heber Springs, he set up shop at sites like the local theatre, where people would drop by, after vaudeville acts, to sit for portraits in front of a trompe-l’oeil backdrop of a Roman temple. He lived with his mother until a tornado flattened her home, on Thanksgiving Day, in 1926. She moved in with a relative, and he relocated to the studio on Main Street, a single-story stucco structure with living quarters separated from the work area by a curtain.
The few surviving photographs of Disfarmer show a long-faced man with thin lips that pucker inward. Even in a top hat and three-piece suit, he looks grim and somewhat dishevelled. His contemporaries described an “Ichabod-type feller” who rode about town on his horse, with a camera and tripod at the ready. For all the disarming intimacy of his portraiture, Disfarmer was by most accounts a chilly presence in the studio. “Instead of telling you to smile, he just took the photo—no ‘cheese’ or anything,” one former customer recalled, in the seventies. Nonetheless, his enterprise attracted churchgoing families, local baseball players, teen-agers on first dates, and droves of farmers from the surrounding countryside. “Mike had the world by the tail, and it was a downward pull, because he didn’t have no competition,” his last studio assistant, Bessie Utley, once said. “They’d line up just like it was a bargain basement.”
In the fifties, Disfarmer’s health declined, and he ventured out less. Children lingered near his studio and made a game of fleeing at the sight of him. One of Disfarmer’s sisters recalled that, when she and a group of relatives stopped by Heber Springs toward the end of his life, he asked them to leave. But family letters relate a few warmer encounters. Roy Fricker, Disfarmer’s late nephew, paid a visit to the studio with his wife, Louise, in 1958, just months before neighbors discovered Disfarmer dead on the floor. When the couple left, Disfarmer took the uncharacteristic step of walking them out to shake hands and say farewell. A photo taken by Roy that day shows the old man standing at the edge of a field, wearing rumpled clothes and a wide-brimmed hat. His hands are tucked behind his back to hide two cans of beer, the Frickers’ parting gift.
Some longtime residents of Heber Springs have tired of hearing from outsiders with a stake in the Disfarmer story. Jeannie McGary, who is in her seventies, was photographed by Disfarmer as a baby. A veteran volunteer at the local historical society, she’s given tours of Disfarmer’s work to European curators, documentary filmmakers, and, on several occasions, his heirs. She told me that she was skeptical of the motives behind their legal dispute. If Disfarmer hadn’t become as famous as he did, “I don’t think anybody would be interested now,” she said. Ellen Hobgood, who owns an art gallery in Heber Springs, found it hard to believe that Disfarmer’s relatives had only recently become aware of his fame. An artist herself, Hobgood specializes in large acrylic paintings of Santa Claus, which have been reproduced, with her permission, on a regional company’s tins of pecan toffee. She said that in theory she sympathized with the victims of copyright infringement. But, if Disfarmer’s heirs wanted a part in his legacy, she added, “They should have said something sooner.”
In Heber Springs, Stewart and Atkins stayed in the truck while I explored Main Street, a sleepy stretch of small businesses, including a coffee joint called the Jitterbug and a movie theatre with an Art Deco marquee. A hearing related to the Disfarmer case was scheduled for the following month, in probate court, to address the custody of the glass-plate negatives, and the siblings were wary of being seen with a reporter. In such a small town, Stewart told me, the news could get back to the judge and give the impression that the family was “trying to build a sympathy case with the public.”
Deal was no longer working for them. The previous March, just days before the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a halt, he’d flown in from Virginia for a meeting about the case with Disfarmer’s family at Murry’s, a roadside restaurant east of Little Rock. More than thirty relatives from across the country wore nametags and gathered in a back room. A granddaughter of Disfarmer’s eldest brother, who had travelled from Connecticut, told me that Deal sat at her table but kept to himself. While waiting for his plate of barbecue, he stood up to explain that he’d been focussing his legal efforts on the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation, which owns the glass-plate negatives. The foundation seemed amenable to a settlement, Deal said, and he expected to have a draft of a proposed agreement soon.
A few weeks later, he presented one to the family. Under the terms of the agreement, the foundation would pay the family a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. In exchange, the foundation, along with Peter Miller and the Group, would be released from future liability, and the museum would retain the “permanent right” to exhibit the glass-plate negatives. Deal told me that expecting anything more would have been unrealistic, given the complexities of the case. For instance, even if the family managed to obtain the negatives, they’d need to secure copyrights before they could legally make prints or sue for infringement. That would be tricky, because Disfarmer had made his photographs long before the Copyright Act bolstered its protections for artists. Other legal professionals I consulted about the case agreed that it was, as one put it, “unsatisfyingly murky.”
To Disfarmer’s relatives, though, Deal’s proposal was an insult. The contract allowed the family only two days a year to “view, inspect, and inventory” the negatives, and made no mention of producing or selling prints. Soon after Deal presented the draft, they fired him. (In an e-mail, the foundation’s lawyers told me that they could not comment on confidential settlement proceedings but that “many of the purported facts conveyed by Mr. Disfarmer’s heirs about the negotiations are wrong.”) Over lunch outside Heber Springs—which we ate in the car, because of COVID—Stewart retrieved a rumpled, annotated copy of the document from a black dossier. “They thought they could just give us some money and we’d throw our hands up and praise God,” he told 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 part, in his mind, was that the foundation had shown so little faith in Disfarmer’s relatives as stewards of his archive.