Elsa Dorfman's Intimate Polaroid Portraiture Inspired Errol Morris's Warmest Film
Culture Trip chats with director Errol Morris and the invigoratingly unpretentious subject of his latest documentary. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is not only an affectionate tribute to a friend, but a poignant elegy for a fading art form.
Errol Morris’s vibrant new film isn’t a true crime investigation like his best-known work The Thin Blue Line or a political biography like The Unknown Known. It’s a study of a singular artist, the 20 by 24 inch Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman. In her long career, Dorfman has photographed fellow artists such as Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Dylan, Faye Dunaway, Julia Child, and Jonathan Richman. No less revealing than Dorfman’s images of celebrities are her thousands of portraits of the non-famous, and those in which she has caught the dignity and bravery of terminal cancer and AIDS patients.
Ginsberg in the buff
It only takes a minute or two of watching and listening to Dorfman in Morris’s film—and only seconds when interviewing her—to glean one reason why her photography is so bracingly truthful (for all her protestations that the camera captures only surfaces). Her natural artistry is complemented by warmth and empathy so pronounced that narcissists and charlatans probably give up the ghost in her company and tacitly admit, “Photograph me, warts and all.” Ginsberg once voluntarily took his clothes off for her; she didn’t need to ask him.
The announcement in June 2016 that the 20 x 24 Studio would cease production of large-format film prompted Dorfman to retire, sort of. While her favored medium appears to be doomed, Dorfman herself clearly has thousands of photographs still to take.
Culture Trip: When did you two meet each other?
Errol Morris: Twenty-five plus years ago. It was shortly after I moved from New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts. My wife saw an ad for a benefit for which Elsa was taking photographs. They were a $100 a pop.
Elsa Dorfman: That was a lot of money back then.
CT: And how did the film come about?
CT: Now that large-format Polaroid photography is coming to an end, Elsa, have you truly retired?
ED: It’s really hard to retire emotionally. I still have the lease on my studio. I can’t bring myself to empty it and there’s still Polaroid film. So I’ve raised my prices, and if someone calls me, great. Now I’ve just turned 80, I want to take pictures of myself. I think that would be interesting.
CT: You’re on camera when Errol plays Jonathan Richman’s “Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild” in the film, and that makes perfect sense. Your beauty comes out in your presence and your work.
CT: Do you limit yourself strictly to Polaroid film?
CT: Why do you think you gravitated to Polaroid photography in the first place, rather than using an SLR camera?
CT: Does composing photographs come instinctively to you?
ED: I think about it all the time, but I don’t think I can analyze it. It’s like being asked, “How did you make this soufflé?” The minute you say, “I do it this way,” the next one flops. You know what I mean? I’d be a failure.
CT: In the film, you talk about what you call Polaroid “tire marks”—the distressed border that makes them so familiar as artefacts. It’s a huge part of their charm.
CT: It’s the same as wanting to hear the hiss and crackle when you put a needle on a vinyl LP.
ED: Exactly. And the tire marks were different for every camera—mind you, there are only four of them. [A fifth 20 by 24 original Polaroid camera is inactive; two more were built in 2016.]
CT: Allen Ginsberg is the patron saint of The B-Side. Not only was he your friend, but he was clearly somebody who gave himself to your photos in a very revealing way. Do you regard him as your greatest subject?
CT: Do you think there’s an element of instant gratification in seeing Polaroid pictures right away?
CT: Elsa’s taken your picture a lot?
CT: You didn’t take one of Joyce McKinney from Errol’s Tabloid, Elsa?
CT: Errol, some critics have remarked that The B-Side is very different to your other films.
EM: No, I don’t think it’s different. My wife compared it to Fast, Cheap & Out of Control , which is about time, mortality, the passing of everything. The two films have a lot in common. Fast, Cheap was made right around the time of my mother’s and my step father’s deaths. There is an elegiac element in The B-Side—at least, I hope there is. It’s true of all art in general—and especially true of photography—how easily things are lost or destroyed. Very little was saved from 19th-century photography. Glass plate negatives weren’t saved.
CT: But a photograph freezes something for all time…
ED: As long as it lasts.
CT: What are your immediate plans, Errol?
CT: It’s a documentary?
EM: I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s my newest attempt at trying to re-create nonfiction. It’s scripted and acted.
CT: And you, Elsa?
ED: My plans are to survive.
EM: And take more pictures. I’m part of that group that won’t let her retire.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is in theaters now.
You might also like: Culture Trip’s Rachel Gould on 20 by 24 inch Polaroid photographer Myrna Suarez.