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Spotlight on the 54th New York Film Festival - Photographer Elsa Dorfman in Focus

By: Laura Blum

Using large Polaroid film can get pricey. That’s why photographer Elsa Dorfman always made a point of snapping two photos of her sitters with her large-format Polaroid 20-inch-by-24-inch camera. They got to choose one, and she took the remaining “B-Side.” Dorfman’s distinctive former practice and persona inform The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography.

Featured in the 54th New York Film Festival, Errol Morris’s latest documentary carries on his tradition of probing uncommon callings. It’s an uncommon calling, that tradition began with Gates of Heaven, about pet cemeteries, and brought the filmmaker to profile both noted and unsung souls from death row convict Randall Dale Adams to Defense Secretary Robert MacNamera. The subject of The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is Morris’s close personal friend.

Reached in her Cambridge, Massachusetts home, the magnetic, insightful 79 year old reflected on her long love affair with portraiture, which well predated her embrace of the 240-pound Polaroid in 1980.

thalo: What did you mean by your comment in Errol Morris’s documentary The B-Side that photography "is not real at all”

ED: Well, I don’t really believe in the moment of truth, unless it is the moment of truth that comes to me in the middle of the night. I am big on 4 am insights and memories, but right after the shutter, nah. I suppose "is not real" is actually glib. Of course photography tells what is and what just was a second ago. Think of a bullet or a fire or that terrifying wave. Or a battle. But a photo can look really different a month later. Nothing is in concrete.

th: Not even a camera. What went through your mind when you first heard that Polaroid would discontinue production of instant film?

ED: I thought the river would go on forever. I knew it would end, but that seemed so, so faraway.

th: When did you first become interested in photography and why?

ED: Probably the very first time I was interested in photography was when snapshots came back from the drugstore in a yellow envelope, prints with wavy edges and glossy black negatives that I  could hold up to the lamp and see weird versions of my mother and father and my little sisters. My parents made attempts at albums, black pages with tag lines written in white ink. I never knew which parent took the initiative to order those rectangles and to fit them with silver corners. In 1954 I was an exchange student in Kassel, Germany and my friends gave me a Kodak Pony camera. My mother would write to me and say, Take pictures, take pictures — all we want are pictures. In high school I started an album of my friends and wrote little texts. That looking back was the beginning of the narrative form I have worked with ever since. I always wanted to write, but I never had the gumption to sit down and write. How would the story end? But the images gave me a sense of order.

th: How did growing up in a large extended family shape your visual storytelling skills?

ED: Well, I guess there were a lot of stories, a lot of relatives to keep track of. It was the war time and there were lots of reports of people hurt, people lost, disasters. There was only the newspaper and the radio. Imagine life without television or FM radio, or the computer. I remember my parents and relatives all talking, sometimes in code, sometimes whispering. My mother spent hours on the television with her girlfriends. How I wished I knew what they were chattering about.

th: Who were some of your earliest artistic influences?

ED: My interests were in the world more than in the art world, surely up through my early 20s. I always was a starer. I stared at everything and everyone. I was a weird child in that way. Maybe it was because I was so myopic and wore eyeglasses from first grade. I had to stare to see. Or maybe it was because I was the kind of kid who listened to everything — conversations at the next table, in the line waiting for something, on the playground.

th: What does portraiture give you that photographing landscapes or objects doesn’tt?  

ED: I grew up on an urban block in Boston. There was a park nearby, so in fact I did see trees and paths and flowers. But I didn’t have the sense of landscape, lakes — I can’t explain why or how landscape left me cold. People and what they were saying, what I was trying to hear, was more interesting to me than were fields. And I was afraid of the ocean. The waves terrified me. My cousins, male, would toss me in the waves. I hated it. To this day I can’t look at surfing pictures without curdling.

th: Your work pulsates with an immediacy and a warts-and-all humanity. Were you ever drawn to the more staged, manicured portraiture of say, a Yousuf Karsh?

ED: No, I never was attracted to Karsh or “more staged, manicured portraiture.” Maybe it is because I myself am a failure at stagey-ness and do not have a manicured personality. I never fit in a mold. It made me unhappy. I wanted to fit in a mold and to wear blouses that stayed under my skirt band. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong to always have my sweater over my waistband, my jacket wrinkled. I wanted to be ironed and perfect, but I could never, as they say, get it together. I loved clothes and never put them together in a conventional way, or went for a conventional use of color. I loved purple and pink together. In the 40s that wasn’t it. Of course I was young when things were rationed and everything was an effort.

th: What prompted you to get a masters in elementary education, and how did this fit in with your photography career?

ED: I got a degree in elementary education cause I was at loose ends and couldn’t think of what to do. And the default path was to be a teacher. It made no sense.I didn’t have the personality to work in a school, with authority figures like principals and head teachers. But it seemed like a way to earn a living. And in 1960 not much was open to a semi-conventional woman like I was. I wasn’t a daredevil and I wasn’t wild. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. And in fact, teaching led to the Elementary Science Study, where I worked with photographer George Cope and learned darkroom skills. And I loved science and worked with brilliant people like (evolutionary theorist) Lynn Margulis. So it was not a bad move. Though it sure could have been. And I kept up with my friends from Grove Press. Oddly they were all similar people in a way.  

th: Talk about your beginnings at Grove Press, and how the relationships you cultivated tempered your lens.

ED: It was a magical place, a historic place. And I had the lowest job there! But it was a wonderful job: typing, answering the phone, writing letters to writers, reading, talking endlessly. It helped me figure out what could be a life — and what couldn’t. I made wonderful friends. And I ran into people who really were photographers, and I got a sense of what it was. Grove Press and Elementary Science were the most important things I did, besides meeting my husband Harvey! I had no idea that Grove would turn out to be that crucial.

th: Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Faye Dunaway, your friend Allen Ginsberg — how do celebrities differ from ordinary sitters, and how does photographing them differ from the process or thinking that goes on in photographing non-celebrities?

ED: They certainly release energy in those around them. My way is to make the celebrity look just like anyone else. I’m the opposite of a celebrity photographer. On the other hand, celebrities I am sure can be very demanding. Demanding people are just that: demanding. And I know it when i see it. Oy.  

th: Back when you were photographing Ginsberg and other countercultural legends featured in your 1974 book Elsa's Housebook: A Woman's Photojournal, how did their own photography shape your sensibility?

ED: I think it is hard to figure out what influences what, or it takes years to put it all together. Allen always loved photography and took pictures. He was captivated by everything. I am sure I was influenced by him and Kerouac, but I can’t say how.

th: Your Polaroid 20x24 is one of only six in existence. What is it about this camera that has earned your loyalty all of these years?

ED: I think it is its size and its drama and its sense of taking over. It sets the mood and all my clients catch on, even though it is only a second to take the image, just like it is with a Brownie camera. And then there is the size of the image: 20x24 and the magic of the film, the way it emerges out of the dark negative. It is like the magic of the darkroom, but actually more magical. The darkroom is more mystical. The darkness, the 20x24 is in the air.

th: Some of the best movies are the result of tensions on the set. Is there a similar dynamic at work in your portraiture? Do you try to minimize — or harness — tension in the studio?

ED: Oh, I am anti-tension. Absolutely no tension around me. Especially in my studio, which is in the cellar of a somewhat classy office building outside Harvard Square. So no windows. It is very cozy and I have a collection of peculiar chairs for posing, postcards of former clients on the wall, toys, boxes of books we couldn’t fit into our house — sort of an attic and a work space. I have a lively sense of humor and that helps minimize the tension there might be. And I call a spade a spade, mostly, and that relaxes people. I don’t pretend someone is on crutches or someone has a black eye. Or purple hair.  

th: How important is it to establish trust and to have a rapport with a subject?

ED: It is hopeless without a rapport. There has to be something familiar about the person. As they get off the elevator, I know it. Mostly it is a very self-selected group who comes to me. They know whether they can do it or not: Pay a lot of money and take only two shots — and choose one.

th: What typically distinguishes the “B-side” from the version selected by a client?

ED: Oh, the B-sides are less behaved, more accidental. They sometimes have weird chemical marks. They’re more nonchalant. They become suggestive or even revealing after a long time. They are quirky, one of my favorite words.

th: How does the act of taking someone’s picture create distance — or connection — between photographer and subject?

ED: I think the connection is after the picture, when they get the framed portrait. There is a lot of insight, but I think it comes after, when I am framing the picture, or even later, when I am thinking about it. I should probably have kept notes after a session, but I didn’t. I think I was afraid of what I had seen — or of my intuitions. Or maybe I had all I could do to do what I had to do. It was very magical, which I know sounds corny. Mostly I got people who knew what I was after, even little kids, and it worked. It worked without too much articulation.

th: Looking back, was there an especially memorable photo-session?


ED: The people who know they are dying are the most memorable and the ones I feel the most responsible for. It’s like I have to come through. I remember all of them. There are about 20. I dedicated En Famille to the clients who knew they were dying.

th: That’s the 1999 book you did with poet Robert Creeley.

ED: Yes. One was a young woman who, while she was at Harvard, was misdiagnosed by a doctor. She really did have breast cancer. And I did a doctor and his siblings and parents and children. He figured out why my lights were misfiring — and he diagnosed his own brain tumor.  

th: Though you’re officially retired, what are you working on these days?

ED: I am clearing my office and putting my books in order and thinking about what I will do — and trying to exercise. I want to use the camera in my studio for myself, with friends, playing with it, seeing where I will go with it now that I am not as agile as I used to be.

th: What are your plans to do with your archive?

ED: My thinking is that I will keep the small archive of things that are meaningful to me and let my grandchildren get to know me and Harvey through those things. Then they can decide if they want to quote place them somewhere. 

th: If you could only keep one photo from your collection, what would it be?

ED: I guess it would be my husband holding the ashes of our dog. Or one of Harvey naked that hangs in our bedroom. Harvey is a great muse.

th: How do you feel about today’s world of digital selfies and viral sharing?

ED: I have never tried one with my cellphone. Of course I love self-portraits. I never know what I look like without my glasses, so a self-portrait is simply helpful. When I had dark days, I found self-portraits were fun, because I got outside myself and because the pictures were never as frightful or sad or melodramatic as I felt. Unless I clung to my negative feelings, which I could be good at, I got distracted by the camera and forgot or lost what was bugging me! One of the hardest things for me now is getting used to the digital age. I can’t figure out Facebook for the life of me. I don’t get the sense of all the little icons, and I totally can’t remember passwords. I am waiting for fingerprint passwords. It sounds blithe, but it is a real hardship, this being an outsider in the digital world.

th: What would you say to an insider in the digital world looking to photography as a career?

ED: How to make a living? Where to publish? Will there be magazines and newspapers? Will it all be streaming? Will we always want people who can explain what we are experiencing? I will always want to hold a scrap of paper with an image. But wait. Most of these people don’t have scraps of paper. I pass.


1) Elsa Dorfman getting ready for Errol Morris’s “The B-Side” shoot. (c) Nafis Azad. Photo courtesy of Fourth Floor Productions. 

2) Elsa Dorfman in her studio. (c) Nafis Azad. Photo courtesy of Fourth Floor Productions. 

3) Elsa Dorfman’s Polaroid 20x24. Production still from Errol Morris’s “The B-Side.” Photo courtesy of Fourth Floor Productions. 

4) “Myself,” 1973 self-portrait courtesy of Elsa Dorfman. (c) Elsa Dorfman 2016. 

5) “The Music Lesson,” Elsa Dorfman’s 1975 photo of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg courtesy of Elsa Dorfman. (c) Elsa Dorfman 2016. 

6) “Me and My Camera,” September 15, 1986 photo courtesy of Elsa Dorfman. (c) Elsa Dorfman 2016.

7) Production still from Errol Morris’s “The B-Side” featuring Elsa Dorfman’s 1988 photo of her and Allen Ginsberg, “The Morning After Our Reception,” (c) Elsa Dorfman. Production still courtesy of Fourth Floor Productions.

8) “What’s in the future for me and the 20x24,” 2007 photo courtesy of Elsa Dorfman. (c) Elsa Dorfman 2016.