Film & Television

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

The rise and fall of Polaroid is one of the bittersweet stories the photographer shares in Morris’s film. She also walks us through a deserted darkroom, which she wryly observes should be made into a museum. She is at once an expert teacher and sentimental eulogist. And, she is genuinely curious about what will happen to her work after her death. But, it’s her comments about her subjects that afford the most delight. Image after image of luminaries from her earlier career fade away as she pulls out what she calls “the b-sides,” akin to the extra song on the back of a popular record. Whenever she would shoot a portrait, she would take two pictures. Her client chose the one he or she (or they) wanted and she would hold onto the rejected image. She relishes sharing them, wondering why they weren’t chosen. “But, that’s not a bad blink,” she insists. Or, “They probably didn’t like the way the mother looked.” Mostly, she expresses delight at her success in “nailing down the now.” Asked how she feels about the work she’s revisiting, she is forthright. “I feel proud and incredulous. But I don’t feel falsely modest.”

Dorfman’s takes her art seriously. But, it’s not pretentious. The way she articulates her mission is as gently humorous yet straightforward as the portraits she takes. “I have this misguided idea that it will be my role in the universe to make people feel better.” At one point, Morris asks, “Elsa, do you think the camera tells the truth?” She laughs, “Absolutely not … I am interested in the surfaces of people, not their souls.”

Morris, who is a neighbor and close friend of Dorfman, is best known for unblinking looks at much larger and graver subjects. There was outrage when his 1988 The Thin Blue Line was snubbed by the Academy. But, fifteen years later he won an Oscar for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. The B-Side is an anomaly for him, closer, quieter, and filled with genuine affection.

At times, The B-Side, which runs a brief hour and fifteen minutes, feels less like a box office movie and more like something you would find on PBS (and even there, not in prime time). Dorfman’s ongoing narrative makes for an enchanting character sketch, but there isn’t really much of a story arc. Except for the loss of her tools (she compares a camera to a mere spoon; “It’s not the soup” she chides us), she is pretty much the same woman she was when she first found her métier.

But, once she opens her archives of portraits, I was glad to be watching on a big screen. Those giant pictures, stored in flat files in the photographer’s converted garage, instantly bring to life her models and the relationships she’s captured. What attracted me so much back in 1992 is still what makes her work remarkable and joyous and unique.

She may not have been interested in the soul, but she certainly captured life.

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