Elsa Dorfman has been, since 1980, a photographic artist specializing in large-format Polaroid film portraits of both the famous and the ordinary. But few have heard of the “husky little Jewish girl” from Cambridge – until now. Long-time documentary filmmaker Errol Morris gives a look into the life of that artist in “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography.”
This is a surprisingly whimsical documentary from the man known for such serious documentary works as “The Fog of War (2003),” “The Thin Blue Line (1988),” “Mr. Death (1998)” and “The Unknown Known (2013).” Morris has been a neighbor and friend of Elsa Dorfman for many years so, as she prepared to put all of her works into storage, the filmmaker finally gives the lady her due.
The self-described husky Jewish girl who found her niche in life and art with her specialized-format (20X24 inch and 40X80 inch Polaroid cameras) was an unassuming secretary who found her passion back over three decades ago. Her first camera, a Hasselblad, led her to the iconic Polaroid cameras and she became a master of the rare, huge format cameras. (The 40X80 camera that she used for many of her works is just one of five in the entire world.)
The meat and potatoes of “The B-Side,” though, are the titular subjects – of which there were, besides average folks, such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan (together in one photo) – the one of the two photos made for the client that were rejected. As she shows off her B-sides along with the A photos that were purchased instead, I lost myself in her stories. Her lifelong question: “Why did they take A instead of B?” In Elsa’s artistic view, they often made the wrong decision.
If you are interested in a brief history of the Polaroid camera and its evolution, this is for you. If you want to learn about a true artist for which her beloved cameras were “the implement that allows you to eat the soup. It is not the soup,” boy, is this for you I give it a B.
Errol Morris documentaries have ranged from covering pet cemeteries to an omnibus covering a topiary designer and robotics designer to his later Interrotron direct camera address interviews with Robert McNamara and the soldiers who photographed their own abuses of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. For his latest, the Canterbridgian focuses on his neighbor and friend, Elsa Dorfman.
The delightfully down to earth Dorfman pursued a career in photography by selling her photographs from a shopping cart in Harvard Square for $2 a piece, awed that a local store allowed her to borrow the cart. The cops often tried to run her off. Now some of these photos are displayed at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. She documented subjects including Allen Ginsburg, who became a lifelong friend, at the Grolier Bookstore with the Hasselblad camera she'd been given at an MIT program. Ginsburg got her backstage access to Bob Dylan. Later she'd shoot Boston rock icon Jonathan Richman, whose music is used in the film.
Although Morris had long considered Elsa as a subject, "The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography" was instigated by her retirement. As she prepares to depart her studio at 955 Massachusetts Avenue, she goes through the drawers that hold her portraits shot on one of Polaroid's large format 20×24 cameras (she also uses an even larger format that produces 40 x 80"). These are her 'b-sides,' the photo of two she'd shoot for clients who often rejected the more interesting shots. As she holds them up for the camera, they dwarf her.
This may be Morris's loosest documentary to date, his cameraman following Elsa around her cramped storage space as Morris lobs questions. We learn that Elsa's had her annual birthday portrait taken with black balloons ever since her husband, described as unromantic and unimpulsive, gifted her with a large bouquet of them one year. This intimate portrait of a woman who professes to only looking for the 'surface' of happy subjects is like discovering the incredible history of an old friend.
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