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.”