The cover image for Marianne Wiggins’ novel, Evidence of Things Unseen, is virtually unrecognizable as the work of the photographer who went by the single name, Disfarmer. Horizonally bisected, its top half has been thrown out of focus, while the bottom is reversed into a negative. Despite what seems to be a willful intent to eradicate any visual reference to Disfarmer’s original, the use of this photograph on a book cover poses at least one interesting question. But first, a brief background, as Disfarmer’s own story is not without interest:
Mike Disfarmer (born Mike Meyers in 1884) worked for most of his adult life as a commercial portrait photographer in rural Arkansas. His simple, straightforwardly posed pictures of friends and neighbors were unknown outside his hometown of Heber Springs until 1974 (15 years after his death), when their significance and singularity was recognized by Peter Miller, then publisher of The Arkansas Sun, and Julia Scully, editor at Modern Photography magazine. Since then, several monographs of Disfarmer’s portraits have been published.
Evidence of Things Unseen takes place in the years between the first and the end of the second World War, a span of time encompassing Disfarmer’s beginnings and maturation as a photographer. The protagonist of Wiggins’ book, Fos, works as a portrait photographer and opens a studio around Oak Ridge, Tennessee (The lower, negative half of the book’s cover suggests the atomic research that Oak Ridge is known for and the radiation poisoning which consumed Fos’ wife). Disfarmer, of course, lived and worked in neighboring Arkansas.
While I am not suggesting that Fos is based on Disfarmer, the similarities do make for an interesting choice of cover. And so I find it all the more intriguing that the designer (or publisher, or sales staff; these decisions aremade by any one or more of a myriad of individuals) should choose to distort Disfarmer’s photo to the degree that its original connection to the novel, and consequently the need for its use altogether, becomes rather arbitrary. Or perhaps the point is the obliteration of identity, in which case the link between Disfarmer and Fos exists as an additional, albeit latent, layer of meaning.