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Out of the Dark(room) and Into the Light – The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

B-Side 01

By Elias Savada.

There is an elegant, simple beauty in documentarian Errol Morris’s affectionate portrait of his friend, soft-spoken, 80-year-old Elsa Dorfman, in his new film. In a career that spanned the majority of her adult life, Dorfman has found the fun in photography, and it’s probably best to spell it as FUN, because for more than 30 years she shot most of her subjects with a large Polaroid Land 20×24 camera, a unique beast that pushed out near instant and real large portraits of friends, families (including her own), and famous folk. The stationary lens she offered her subjects actually paled in size to an even rarer 40×80 super-sized unit that Dorfman memorializes about at one point in the film. Still, it’s the mama-bear-sized wheeled-chassis item that has found her the subject of this lovely tale of a New York Jewish woman who found success in Massachusetts.

B-Side 02Morris seems to relish in his laidback approach in The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Viewers used to seeing his subjects look straight at his camera will see a different, side and top angle, approach here. Or standing behind one of her photos as it faces the camera, offering up commentary about who, what, when, and where. The filmmaker’s “Interrotron” camera, which allows his subjects to answer Morris’s off-camera questions while looking straight at the audience, has been his trademark for years, most recently in The Unknown Known (2013), his interrogation of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It also helped him secure an Oscar for The Fog of War, his 2003 observation of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. (His 1988 investigative piece, The Thin Blue Line – made before he introduced the Interrotron – is one of the most acclaimed documentaries ever made.) In The B-Side, I think the only time Dorfman talks straight to the lens is when she tears up reminiscing about the death of poet Allan Ginsberg.

The landscape of the Polaroid land camera, highlighted briefly in this brisk (76-minute) feature, began in the late 1940s (co-founder Edwin Land is seen in a promotional insert), so I remember using them a half-century ago for the print-in-a-minute gratification they offered. No need to send your 35mm roll of 24- or 36-shot film off to a laboratory and wait days for results, generally 2×3 photos and negative strips in a glassine sleeve. Yet, the Polaroid experience seemed a fad to me, and without the ability to easily replicate the single photos they offered – something modern, low-cost scanners could have allowed – the demise of Polaroid was all too probable in the march of technology.

B-Side 04Unlike vinyl’s comeback, Polaroid ‘s technology is available today in just a few specialized markets, although in May the brand and intellectual property was bought by a shareholder of the Impossible Project, a Dutch company that makes the film used in some of Polaroid’s cameras. Of course, if you have a cellphone, you don’t have to wait a minute and fix your photograph with a chemical stick before showing it to a friend or two. Nowadays, everyone shares memories across a wider (online) audience than was in existence during the formative years of Polaroid’s cameras.

The film makes you think about such things. Whimsical and charming, both in the film’s approach and its subject, there’s a touch of self-deprecation that makes this an everyman’s/everywoman’s tale about being in the right place at the right time, and letting your life take its position in the cosmic flow of time. Dorfman managed to find secretarial work in 1959 at Grove Press in NYC after graduating from Tufts University, and thus began her long friendship with Ginsberg, who’s numerous portraits become a major focus of the film. He loved having his picture taken, especially by Dorfman. He’s just one of the many prominent people who parade through the pictures. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Jonathan Richman (who has two songs on the soundtrack), are but a few of the many.

After a brief time teaching in Concord, Massachusetts, the Boston-based Dorfman blossomed when she began working in a darkroom previously used by Berenice Abbott, a photographer famous for her studies of cultural figures and NYC architecture during the early- to mid-20th century. For Dorfman, who relates her life in delicately incredible terms, there’s a lot of experienced comedy. “I was just one lucky little Jewish girl…who escaped by the skin of her teeth.”

b-side 03The photographs speak for themselves, whether in her early black-and-white studies, or in the marvelous, big photos she began taking in 1980. Each one is a treasure that captures a wonderful awkwardness. As the photographer pulls out one photo after another from one of the many file drawers that house her life’s work, she relates tales and anecdotes, showcasing an impeccable memory about the subjects and the process. With the large-format camera, Dorfman would allow her paying subjects to retain one photo; the rejected second, which she christened “B-sides,” like the lesser-known songs featured on a flipped-over 45 rpm records, became her property. Hence the film’s title. She’s got a determined opinion about some her client’s choices.

Flavored with home movies, decades-old television interviews, telephone messages, some lovely selfies (many including her own family), and a practical, poignant, and occasionally plucky score by Paul Leonard-Morgan, The B-Side has us thankful that Dorfman has craved for the large format discipline. There is little you won’t know about this marvelous woman after watching the film. She is, as an advertisement spotted in the film headlines, “The Ultimate Polaroid Exposure.” She believes it is her role in the universe to make people better. And we have Errol Morris to thank for capturing that philosophy for a broader audience to enjoy.

She doesn’t have a clue what will happen to her archive. If Boston isn’t willing, I’d bet the George Eastman Museum in Rochester is. It opened back in 1949, about the same time those first Polaroid cameras were hitting the streets.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).

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