Elsa Dorfman on Film

In a new documentary, the acclaimed photographer finds herself on the other side of the camera
Elsa Dorfman with her camera
A detail from a self-portrait by Elsa Dorfman, who is renowned for her large-format photography.
June 30, 2017

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The legendary documentarian Errol Morris is a filmmaker of great range. The subjects of his work have included everyone from the former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in The Fog of War to an elderly topiary gardener and a retired lion tamer in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. For his new film, which opens in select theaters today, Morris brings to the screen the life of the acclaimed photographer Elsa Dorfman, J59.

In The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, Morris has made what Variety calls a “gentle-hearted gem.” Until her retirement two years ago, Dorfman, now 80, specialized in portrait photography using an enormous Polaroid camera. In the new film, she muses on her life and the dwindling supply of special film for the 20-inch by 24-inch camera. (Polaroid went bankrupt in 2001 and stopped making instant film in 2009). She gives Morris a tour of the framing studio tucked behind the Cambridge home she shares with her husband, civil liberties lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate. In that space Dorfman houses thousands of “B-side” images—the one portrait of two options that her clients, for one reason or other, did not choose. Else Dorman with her 240-pound Polaroid camera. Photo: Elsa Dorfman

Dorfman is fascinated by what “B-sides” reflect—the less-than-perfect, the quirky—and energized by what is different. It’s a theme that threads through those formative years just after graduating from Tufts, where she majored in French and was executive editor of the Tufts Weekly. After being swept into the Beat generation in New York, she considered becoming an elementary school teacher, but instead discovered a passion and talent for photography. Through the defining 1970s, she gamely sold her black and white photos from a shopping cart in Harvard Square, and won a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College, during which she started work on her illustrated memoir Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal

In 1979, Dorfman ventured into the frontier of large-format photography, taking a course at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on how to use the experimental Polaroid.  At the time, the 240-pound camera seemed suited only to photographing large works of art, but in Dorfman’s hands it proved as lithe as a gymnast. Over more than three decades, countless subjects—from neighborhood families to the poet Allen Ginsberg—came to Dorfman to experience something uncommonly personal: a vision of themselves as seen through an inimitable artist’s eyes.