Who Owns Mike Disfarmer’s Photographs?

Strangers made his small-town portraits famous in the art world. Decades later, his heirs want control of the estate.

That changed in 2019, when, on a family trip to New York, Miller stopped by Howard Greenberg Gallery and learned that it had recently received a letter challenging the sale of Disfarmer prints. The author of the letter was David Deal, a lawyer who’d made his name leading a previous dispute over the estate of another Howard Greenberg artist, the photographer Vivian Maier. Maier, a nanny in Chicago, made no known attempts to sell or exhibit her work during her lifetime. Like Disfarmer, she became famous after her death. In 2014, Deal tracked down one of Maier’s distant cousins to fight for control of her archive. (A high-profile copyright-infringement case against one of the major collectors of her work was settled, confidentially, in 2016.) Now, as Deal’s letter informed Howard Greenberg, he was representing Disfarmer’s heirs—not one or two but nearly three dozen—in an effort to recover their “physical and intellectual property” and “any revenue generated by the appropriation” of copyrighted images. “He’s suing us,” a gallery associate told Miller. “And he’s gonna sue you.”