The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography: Scratch the Surface, by David Bax
Elsa Dorfman has photographed a number of famous people in her time, from the Beat poets (most notably and most often her good friend Allen Ginsberg) to Bob Dylan to later musicians like Steven Tyler and Jonathan Richman. Yet, as good as those pictures are, they will not be her legacy. She will, especially if Errol Morris’ new documentary The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography anything to say about it, be remembered for the decades she spent taking beautiful, straightforward individual and family portraits in a rare and notable format. Morris, in pointing a camera at her the same way she did and the same way he has done many times before, explores as much about himself as he does his subject.
Dorfman, still living at 80 but basically retired, worked for decades almost exclusively in large format Polaroid photography. Polaroid didn’t make many cameras of this size but she was able to employ the 20 by 24 inch model for years, as well as occasionally the exceedingly rare 40 by 80 inch variety. If you remember how a Polaroid works—the film has to be the same size as the photo you print out—you may begin to grasp how uncommon her practice must have been.
Dorfman, as a documentary subject, is a delight. With her thick Boston accent and lack of pretension, she’s everyone’s favorite aunt or teacher. She’s also guileless and plainspoken in a way that Morris makes great use of. It’s disarming when she speaks deep truths in a simple, straightforward manner, like when she says of her subjects, captured forever on film, “They never looked young but now they look young.”
It’s worth mentioning here that, in addition to documenting Dorfman’s life and work, The B-Side has a parallel identity as an overview of the history of the Polaroid company. It’s not always flattering, as Dorfman struggled for years to be taken seriously by them, but it’s always respectful, especially of the uncomplicated but revelatory nature of the format itself.
It’s a bit odd, at first, to realize Morris isn’t uses his standard, head-on Interrotron method of recording his interviews with Dorfman. Perhaps he decided that to do so would hit a bit too close to home, given how similar the look of his films is to Dorfman’s photos. He does, however, echo her approach in other ways, most notably by shooting in scope; a wide frame to offer balance to her tall photos (even if it does sometimes keep him from being able to fit them in the shot). He does, though, film his main interview with Dorfman in an almost haphazardly canted angle, a stark contrast to his usual meticulous use of balance.
Maybe Morris has switched up his methods because Dorfman has made him self-conscious. It’s amusing to think that the director—a portrait artist himself—must have experienced some self-reflection when his subject said, “I’m really interested in the surface of people. I’m not interested in capturing their souls.” Even more tellingly, Morris includes an old television interview with Dorfman where she is asked, “Do you think the camera tells the truth?” She answers quickly, “Absolutely not.” It’s a fascinating moment for a documentarian to include in his film. The B-Side is good as a movie about Elsa Dorfman. But, when considered within the filmography of its director, it’s great.