The moment 80-year old Elsa Dorfman graces the screen, we are taken in by her youthful presence and unmistakably Massachusetts accent. Most known for her large format Polaroid photography, she gained notoriety shooting portraits of local rock n’ rollers (Jonathan Richman, Aerosmith), and beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Her relationship with the latter spanned decades, and The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography by Errol Morris (The Fog of War, Mr Death) showcases their friendship as having been tender and upbeat. Their artistic collaborations were an inspiration to the up-and-coming photographer.
Morris has created a poetic and photographic journey through Dorfman’s career. Fittingly, the opening credits are a collection of aesthetically pleasing closeups, employing a short depth of field with eye-catching foreground elements, such as urban architecture, and darkroom and studio signage. It is the perfect analogy of how Dorfman categorizes her portraits. She deals with the surface. For her, the mask people wear is more interesting than using her camera to capture their soul.
In an interview clip, a young Dorfman says photography “is not real at all”. By this, she means that if a photographer takes 20 shots, the model will look different in each one. Her work is not only about a person clicking a trigger. Her results are as they are thanks to the interaction between photographer and subject. If then, it takes 20 minutes to shoot 20 portraits, each one may hold a different version of the subject as they interact with the photographer.
Through a segment where Dorfman listens to old answering machine messages about Allen Ginsberg’s deteriorating health (and ultimate demise), we learn that perhaps a portrait’s ultimate meaning materializes only after the death of the model. Life is ephemeral.
“The now is racing beyond you,” Dorfman explains. And no, we can’t keep the present just because we’ve photographed it. There is a definite element of perishability to even the materials in Dorfman’s chosen technique. To preserve a Polaroid, it must be kept out of direct sunlight. The future is unknown for prints like these stored in Dorfman’s studio. Certainly they may be re-photographed or scanned to produce digital archives or subsequent copies, but the feeling of the ‘now’ would fade. The original image captures an atmosphere and a moment directly to a 20” x 24” surface. This can never completely be simulated through Photoshop filters and pristine new printing techniques. Dorfman deals with the ‘process’ and not just the final image. Modern processes hold validity, but will never reach the tactility and intimacy of good old-fashioned Polaroids. Dorfman says that these large format ‘negativeless’ prints act as both picture and process, whereas 35 mm negative is a series of processes that create a final shot. Her oeuvre is not finalized in a darkroom or on a computer. It’s directly out-of-camera, and the ‘instantaneousness’ of such a technique was forever lost when Polaroid went bankrupt.
Still, Dorfman bought the last reserves of their film stock in order to continue shooting ‘her way’ for as long as possible. At 80, she advocates so much in favor of this antiquated technique that it might influence a new generation of artistic viewers to go on an exploration to recapture the beauty and simplicity once offered by Polaroid.
So why the ‘B-side’? Dorfman clarifies that she came up with a nickname for the secondary prints she shoots. Old 45” vinyl records had an A-track (the main single) and a B-track (seen as ‘less good’ and not commercially viable). With regards to Dorfman’s portraits, her clients sit for two shots, and choose their favorite. Rather than discarding the extra, Dorfman stores each B-side. Not only has she paid for the film stock, but she shows how charming many of these so-called ‘rejected’ images can be. Often, it’s the family portrait where one person bursts out laughing that holds the best memory of that moment and that person. Dorfman may seem to have a unique outlook on ‘art’, but to other artists, what she says may feel quite universal. The B-Side is an interesting portrait of an artist well worth watching – for anyone addicted to photography and beyond.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography shows at Cinema du Parc starting July 7th, 2017,