The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
dir. Errol Morris, USA, 76 minutes, 2016
Even with art flooding the landscape, there are plenty of artists working out there whom the world should know about. The photographer Elsa Dorfman in Cambridge Massachusetts is one of them.
Her story is mixed in with tech/camera talk in The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, by Errol Morris (Fog of War (2004). Dorfman took up photography at 28, because, “as an unmarried Jewish girl,’ she wanted to be able to tell people that she did something. You see in this absorbing doc that she indeed did something and many things.
Dorfman met poets and musicians at a job at Grove Press in Manhattan during an early stay in New York. Later, she taught school around Boston and she sold snapshots of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan in Harvard Square. Her pleasant personality kept any threat form cops at a distance. In the early 1970’s she experimented (as did so many women artists) with self-portraits. She also took pictures of family and friends. One life-long friend was Allen Ginsberg, who loved to have his picture taken. We see a lot of him.
Her life changed with the Polaroid 20/24, a camera that could make huge photographs. There were six of them in the world.
“The camera was like a room with a hole for a lens,” the talkative Dorfman recalls in her studio.
Her circle of subjects expanded to include dozens of families and couples in and around Cambridge who wanted their pictures taken – big. Morris and his wife were customers who hired her to photograph their son.
“I’m really interested in the surfaces of people. I am totally not interested in capturing their souls. I’m only interested in how they seem,” Dorfman tells Morris as they view the camera’s precision in 30 years of colossal images. The B-Side (making reference to the song o the reverse side of a 45 rpm record) refers to a second exposure in each Polaroid image, which tended to have fascinating imperfections, and which Dorfman kept, with everything else that she kept. As the old saying about unrecognized art goes, they were worthless, and priceless.
Without a dealer or a gallery, Dorfman sold her own work in Cambridge, with success, until Polaroid failed and new owners killed the 20/24 and stopped making film for it. Would Polaraid, once a profitable novelty, go the way of the hula hoop? I won’t give away what happened after that.
The future is uncertain for Dorfman’s vast archive, although a film by Morris in her studio and around her pictures can’t hurt. Now her priceless photographs are likely to have more value.
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