Elsa Dorfman, Me and my camera, 1986. Courtesy of the artist.
“I don’t like to take pictures of people who are sad, and I don’t like to take pictures of people who are brokenhearted,” says photographer Elsa Dorfman in The B-Side, a new film by famed documentarian Errol Morris that debuts this Friday. Dorfman, now 80, got her start by snapping portraits of poets—Allen Ginsberg most notable among them—whom she first met while working as a secretary (and organizer of readings) for Grove Press. Dorfman was later an avid adopter of Polaroid technology, including the extra-large prints from the 20X24 camera, which she began using in earnest in the 1980s.
Dorfman would take Ginsberg’s picture constantly over the ensuing decades: barechested playing a piano, in some cases, or relaxing in the countryside. A savvy self-promoter, she would push an overstuffed cart around Harvard Square, hawking her own prints—including portraits of Anne Sexton, Anais Nin, W.H. Auden, and others—for $2.50. A hand-lettered sign promised a “Singular opportunity!” An intimate photograph of Ginsberg sitting with Bob Dylan backstage was her bestseller.
A compendium of Dorfman’s early images, many taken with a Hasselblad, were collected in a cheekily titled 1974 volume, Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal. Dorfman was photographing her friends and peers—famous and otherwise—as well as herself, snapping proto-selfies in the mirror. “This was helping me, in some magical way, to take portraits,” she tells Morris in The B-Side. “People could sense: I did it to myself, too.”
Dorfman’s rich career began with a government-sponsored program that saw M.I.T. staff training elementary school teachers in new ways to teach science to children. Through the initiative, she had the chance to use a darkroom that was made famous via the 1950s physics photographs of Berenice Abbott.
“These people let me borrow a camera and taught me how to use it,” Dorfman told me. “I was always broke! It was a Hasselblad, and I didn’t even know that was a good camera. But they didn’t intimidate me by saying, ‘Be careful young lady, this is a $1,000 camera’—which back then was like the moon.”
Speaking of the moon: Dorfman says she didn’t realize the quality of the camera she’d been given until a clumsy astronaut accidentally lost a similar model. “He let go of it or something, in space,” the artist recalls. “I thought, oh my god, that’s the camera I have!”
Elsa Dorfman, Kristalleon Big Apple Circus, 1993. Courtesy of the artist.
Elsa Dorfman, Allen and Peter, 1983. Courtesy of the artist.
Her career shifted once she started experimenting with Polaroid’s instant photography. And when Polaroid’s 20X24 studio arrived in Cambridge, it was a game-changer, even though Dorfman wasn’t one of the artists initially courted to work with the large and expensive camera. “You had to be in the circle,” she tells Morris in The B-Side. “It was hard to break the line of their pets.” Her best tactic? “Being a nag.”
Eventually, Dorfman found proper studio space and arranged a deal to rent a 20X24 camera from Polaroid. This kicked off a decades-long portraiture business. Initially, she was charging around $200 for commissions. “People came in because they loved their family, and something special was happening,” Dorfman told me. “It amazed me how many men were the organizing person in their family, how many boys (35-year olds, I call them boys) would call, saying, ‘It’s my mother’s birthday and I want to surprise her.’ It was very revealing to me, how much people really loved their families, in a way that they weren’t embarrassed by.”
During each portrait session, Dorfman would make a pair of 20X24 images. The subject would chose their favorite, and the artist would keep the other for her archives—hence the term “the b-side” itself, which refers to the unwanted photograph.
“I consider that the session always begins with the phone call,” Dorfman explains. “Hello, I’m Scott, and it’s my parents’ 50th anniversary. We want to give them something special. How much? Oh, well, maybe we can manage. Then you call back, we pick a date. No, I can’t do that date, I have soccer practice.…By then we’re really friends over the telephone!” Families would arrive at Dorfman’s studio—sometimes with props, sometimes with dogs. “We’d fit everybody in.”
In The B-Side, Dorfman stresses the obviously elegiac nature of photographs themselves. As she tells Morris in the film: “Maybe that’s when the photographs have their ultimate meaning, it’s when the person dies.”
Elsa Dorfman, Marimekko, 2007. Courtesy of the artist.
Elsa Dorfman, That's what I looked like, 1982. Courtesy of the artist.
It’s a point that was driven home a few weeks ago, when Dorfman received a message from a woman whose family had had their portrait taken at her studio in the mid-’90s. Back then, the woman had called to arrange a rather poignant commission. “She told me that her husband had been diagnosed with cancer and didn’t have long to live,” Dorfman told me. “Their children were maybe five and seven. What they wanted to do was have a family portrait taken, and then take their children out for supper, to tell them the serious news about their father. They wanted a picture while their family was happy—it was very clever of them, actually.”
The father died some six months after the session; Dorfman attended the funeral, but fell out of touch with the family until recently. Recently, the two grown children each wanted a copy of the 20X24 photograph—did Dorfman, they wondered, still have the session’s “b-side” in her flat files? (She does, but her suggestion was for the family to look into more affordable digital reproduction of their original. “It’d look better than the original,” Dorfman said. “That’s a process that didn’t exist before.”)
The artist seems unfazed; mortality and nostalgia are at the heart of her decades-long archive. “I’m amazed by how young we were,” she says to Morris in The B-Side, “and how many of us aren’t still here.” That includes Ginsberg, whose presence hovers throughout the documentary. The poet would himself take up photography during his lifetime, consciously borrowing a technique from Dorfman—using the border of a print to handwrite a caption for the image.
In the film, we see one of Dorfman’s most literally revealing portraits of Ginsberg: a life-size print, taken with Polaroid’s even rarer 40X48 model camera, in which the late poet is completely nude. (“He loved to have his picture taken,” Dorfman tells Morris.)
While the photographer has been flirting with quasi-retirement, she tells me that she’s not quite ready to quit. She owns one of the handful of 20X24 cameras in existence, and some eight years ago purchased additional film for it that is a bit volatile due to the much-longer-than-recommended storage time.
“I am accepting commissions, with a big If,” Dorfman told me. “If I feel up to it! If there’s good film! And if my two assistants are available.” The going rate for a Dorfman original is now $10,000. “If I got one a month, it would be great for my morale as I push the clock toward 81.”