Born Mike Meyer in Indiana, his family moved to Arkansas in 1892. He changed his surname to "Disfarmer" possibly to break with his family's agrarian roots, the first move in a maverick career that embraced both obscurity and a rigorous aesthetic. Disfarmer maintained a portrait studio in his hometown of Heber Springs, Arkansas, and photographed members of the local community for small fees. But his "penny portraits" were far more than mere keepsake photographs. Employing a stark realism and often lengthy, unnervingly mute sitting sessions, Disfarmer produced a consistent stream of portraits that, according to some, strip his subjects into an uncanny intimacy. His photographs are said by some to capture the essence of a particular community in a particular time with piercing solemnity and a touching simplicity. His reclusive lifestyle has left many details of his life obscure or uncertain.
A large cache of negatives shot by Disfarmer were found in the 1970s in Heber Springs by Peter Miller who spent a year on a bicentennial grant cleaning, preserving and cataloging the negatives. Subsequently, two exhibitions of Disfarmer's own prints were held.
In 2008, a picture of Disfarmer was used on the 80th Academy Awards telecast as the alleged portrait of Roderick Jaynes, the film editing pseudonym of the Coen brothers, who was nominated at that ceremony for editing the Coens' film No Country for Old Men. Disfarmer's photo was supplied to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by the Coens after Jaynes' nomination.
In 2009, he was the subject of a puppet-theater production by Dan Hurlin, premiered at St. Ann's Warehouse in New York City. His life was an inspiration for guitarist Bill Frisell, who was commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts to write the score to accompany a retrospective of Disfarmer's work. Frisell visited Disfarmer's home town of Heber Springs, Arkansas and created an album "Disfarmer".
- Disfarmer, Mike. Disfarmer: The Heber Springs Portraits, 1939–1946. Addison House
- Disfarmer, Mike, Steven Kasher, and Alan Trachtenberg. Original Disfarmer Photographs. Göttingen: Steidl, 2005
- Disfarmer, Mike. Heber Springs Portraits: Continuity and Change in the World Disfarmer Photographed. University of New Mexico Press
- Lavut, Martin (director) (31 May 2010). Disfarmer: A Portrait of America (Documentary film). Canada: Public Pictures.
- Isherwood, Charles (2 February 2009). "An Eccentric Existence: Ice Cream, Beer and Art". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 February 2009.
- Smith, Kyle (24 February 2008). "Another Montage and the Roderick Jaynes Question". KyleSmithOnline.com. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
- Ebert, Roger (11 September 2008). "Those Coen boys, what kidders". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
- "Bill Frisell: 2009: album ″Disfarmer″". Nonesuch.com.