Directed by famed documentarian Errol Morris, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is a perfect match of filmmaker and subject. Over a long career, Morris focused his camera on everyone from former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to the owners of a pet cemetery, and he always strives for a new way to film faces. To that end, he invented the “Interrotron,” a specialized camera that allows Morris’ subject to look at him and into the camera lens at the same time. Faces and bodies also fascinate Elsa Dorfman, who internalizes the reciprocal relationship between herself and the people she shoots. These two are masters, and their gentle rapport is a swansong for a format in the midst of its death rattle.
At age 80, Dorfman still has the sweet disposition and warm smile of her early years. The film’s opening section covers her early life and how she didn’t own a camera until her late twenties. For her, a camera was a way to establish an identity, since being an unmarried Jewish woman was frowned upon in the ’60s. By then, she had already struck up a friendship with Allen Ginsberg, the poet featured in her most famous picture: “The Music Lesson,” a shot of Ginsberg and Bob Dylan leaning over a guitar in 1975. Her real calling, however, did not come until she began working with large-format Polaroid cameras. Her preferred film stock is 20×24 inch Polaroid film, much larger than what we typically see, and her portrait studio was a place to capture people, couples, and families in a bright, revealing way.
Morris does not need to use the Interrotron on Dorfman since she is already so comfortable in front of the camera. Decades before selfies became ubiquitous, Dorfman would photograph herself regularly, sometimes nude, as a way to hone her craft. Most of The B-Side takes place in Dorfman’s studio, where she unearths photos she hasn’t seen in years. Soft-spoken and funny, Dorfman has an uncanny ability to say something profound in simple, arresting terms. Part of her charm is that she developed her photographic style out of practical concerns. She explains her philosophy, noting she refuses to photograph people when they’re sad (her least favorite clients are teenagers). Morris weaves archival footage alongside his interviews, suggesting that Dorfman has maintained this unflappable nature over the years.
The other constant of her career, of course, was her obsession with Polaroid film. The documentary begins by noting that the company plans to discontinue its 20×24 film at the end of 2017. At one point, Dorfman bitterly notes how the new owners want the brand without preserving the machinery. “Photographs will never again look like this,” she notes unironically. Plenty of The B-Side includes languid shots of the portraits, with Paul Leonard-Morgan’s evocative music in the background, and the pictures are indeed enigmatic. Morris and Dorfman keep returning to Ginsberg, who loved to be photographed, and their deep friendship hints at the challenges of photography. Not everyone is comfortable in front of a camera, and Dorfman’s genius comes from creating a space where anyone can feel poised, natural, and happy.
Almost every family has an awkwardly staged professional photograph of their early years, possibly taken in a mall. Some of us have school portraits or wedding photographs. Many of these look forced, with the subjects forcing smiles and conveying the comfort of someone who wants to leap out of their skin. At first, Dorfman’s way of eliminating barriers seems easy, or inconsequential. As we reflect on the quality of her portraits, however, we see that Dorfman’s general attitude toward humanity is what helps her flourish as an artist. Morris has similar reserves of empathy, except here he can relax since Dorfman is every bit his equal. More than anything else, The B-Side will make you prioritize the need to get better, more artful portraits than the shitty selfies that we snap every day. Dorfman and Morris could not ask for a better legacy.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.