Film & Television

Capturing the Now, Larger than Life —The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I spent our wedding night at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. We would leave the next day for a honeymoon in the Greek Isles that we were pretty much paying for with credit cards. (I mention this for a reason.) Beneath the hotel, was a warren of little retail shops, many of them empty. In one, there was a display of oversized Polaroid images of individuals, families, and couples. There were business cards advertising the local photographer and a rate sheet. I can’t remember how much a sitting cost, but for some reason I’m thinking it was about $150. Although I was really drawn to the work and thought a post-wedding portrait would be a marvelous thing to commission, the price was too high for us at the time. (See above comment on our honeymoon financing.) I kept the business card for many years, but never followed through.

That decision — “inaction” is probably a better word — will forever have a place on my life list of regrets.

Polaroid was a client of mine at the time. My ad agency produced videos to promote the use of instant imaging in law enforcement and emergency medical situations. I had also once been offered a job with Polaroid’s consumer camera division. And many years before that, my father had used an early black and white Polaroid folding camera to document our childhoods. Suffice it to say, Polaroid technology was not new to me, but there was still something fairly magic about it. More than that though, the giant portraits on display at the Charles Hotel had captured something very special. They seemed larger and more colorful than life. The subjects were certainly posing, yet they felt completely candid. There was no agenda; simply smiling, happy people, staring at a giant camera and trying not to blink.

Little did they (or I) know that the photographer’s work would eventually find itself in the permanent collections of several major museums, including the National Portrait Gallery, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Fogg Museum at Harvard. Or that the photographer herself, Elsa Dorfman, now 80 years old, would become the subject of a loving documentary by Oscar-winning director Errol Morris.

In The B-Side, Dorfman’s life story is told in a number of intimate conversations. In 1959, she graduated from Tufts University and since she was not getting married, which she confides was “mortifying,” she needed to find something to do. In hindsight, she describes herself as a “lucky little Jewish girl who escaped by the skin of her teeth,” and the place to which she escaped turned out to be New York’s Grove Press, the unofficial epicenter for writers of the “Beat Generation” movement. There she met Allen Ginsburg (“He asked me where ‘the can’ was.”) who became a lifelong friend and collaborator.

Back in Boston at age 28, she was studying to be a teacher when a colleague at MIT handed her his Hasselblad camera and suggested she try it. Her connection to photography was instant and indelible. She began with what we would now call “selfies,” shooting herself in mirrors or with an old-fashioned handheld remote shutter complete with a black cord that bisects each image. She shot her husband, civil rights lawyer Harvey Sliverglate, and celebrity friends from the legendary Grolier Poetry Bookshop: Jorge Luis Borges, Anais Nin, Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde, and again and again Ginsberg. In fact, it was Ginsberg who introduced her to a young Bob Dylan, who in turn overrode a “no cameras” rule during his “Rolling Thunder Review,” allowing her backstage access much to the irritation of his official photographer. Dorfman’s images were published in 1974 in her book Elsa’s Housebook — A Woman’s Photojournal, and she sold prints from a shopping cart in Harvard Square.

In 1980, Dorfman’s life changed when she became enthralled with Polaroid’s 240-pound 20×24 handcrafted instant camera. There were only five made, and Polaroid offered access to a limited number of fine art photographers. Dorfman, as she is quick to point out, was not part of that select group. She nevertheless found ways to work with it, renting it, nagging the team at Polaroid, and pouncing when one of the rare machines was returned from an assignment in Asia. Despite her commitment to the medium, Polaroid never sponsored her. She leased the camera for thirty years, and could have purchased it three times over with the money she paid.

Nevertheless, she was hooked. Ginsberg’s portrait was the first she took with the innovative equipment (she shot him many more times throughout the rest of his life). She set up her portrait business and charged “as much as I could.” She estimates that she took about 4,000 portraits of individuals, couples, families, and “dynasties.” She would almost certainly still be shooting, despite her age, had it not been for the dawn of digital and the demise of Polaroid. In 2008, the company which had been in and out of bankruptcy, stopped making the large format film. Dorfman bought as much of it as she could get her hands on, but her supply has run out.

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