Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris has travelled the world chronicling the famous and infamous. To find the subject for his latest film “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” he looked closer to home. Next door in fact, to the home of his friend, portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman.
It’s a film as simple and unpretentious as its subject. In 76 quick minutes Morris lets Dorfman narrate the story in her thick Massachusetts accent. A friendship with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg opened the door for her to take photos of many literary and music stars, including W.H. Auden, Anais Nin, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Local heroes like Jonathan Richman also found their way before her camera but it is the pictures of her family and friends that define her work. “What you’re wearing is OK,” she says. “Who you are is OK. You don’t have to be cosmetized.” It is, she says, an acceptance of “everydayness.”
Much of “The B-Side” takes place in Elsa’s cluttered archive. “A lot of these are mistakes but because they are 20×24 they are too expensive to throw away,” she says. “The ones they don’t take I call the B-side.”
In 1980 she found a format that came to define her work, the Polaroid Land 20×24 camera. Producing large-scale photos became her trademark, although by her own assessment her straightforward approach never brought her fame or media attention.
Perhaps its because the pictures aren’t slick and neither is Elsa. Her work is almost folk art, an outsiders look at the world. She captured her subjects as they are the moment they stood in front of her camera. No touch ups or after effects. The pictures are documents of moments in time, plain and simple. “I am really interested in the surfaces of people,” she says. “I am totally not interest in capturing your soul. I am only interested in how they seem.” Her method was effective. In one newspaper article the mother of a subject raves, “It looks more like Faye than Faye herself.”
“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” is a quiet look at Dorfman and the art and life she created. “I was lucky in a way to find the cameras and to like it,” she says. “It’s a real way of being a quote artist and having an offbeat life. Inventing a way of living that is comfortable. It worked. I feel very grateful that it worked.”