Film

In a New Documentary, Errol Morris Turns His Camera on a Polaroid Portraitist

Errol Morris’s film about the photographer Elsa Dorfman touches on big questions about cycles of life and obsolescence, but remains doggedly cheerful.

Still from <em>The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography</em> (2016) (courtesy NEON)
Still from The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (2016) (all images courtesy NEON)

Elsa Dorfman is an endearing holdout. In a world where commissioning artists to make formal portraits of one’s family seems like a nostalgic indulgence, the Boston-based photographer has made a name for herself with a bright aesthetic and a unique choice of medium: large-format Polaroid film. The 80-year-old portraitist is the subject of documentarian Errol Morris’s latest feature, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, a sweet film that, like an unshaken Polaroid, feels slightly underdeveloped.

The film follows a chronological, biographic format, with Dorfman recounting her life and career, plentifully illustrated by her extensive archive and sprinkled with excerpts of vintage interviews. After growing up in Boston, she moved to New York, armed herself with a camera, and shot candid, black-and-white images of many Beat Generation figures, including Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg, the latter of whom became a lifelong friend and the subject of some of her best-known photos. But it was only when Dorfman moved back to Boston that she found the format and aesthetic that would sustain her for decades.

Still from The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (2016) (courtesy NEON)
Still from The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (2016)

Working with Cambridge-based photo giant Polaroid, she started using one of its 20×24 cameras and never looked back. Ever since, she has been shooting her full-color, large-format portraits, making two images of every client and holding onto the rejected one. Musing on the differences between her sitters’ choices and the photos she gets to keep — where someone might be blinking or bursting into laughter, seemingly disrupting a more formal pose — Dorfman expresses her own preference for the reject or “B-side” image in every instance, hence Morris’s title. The ritual peeling back of every photo’s protective paper, with its anticipation and reveal, and the traces of chemicals that frame each portrait, are wonderfully tactile details that conjure the magic of photography. Even Polaroid’s “instant pictures” seem charmingly arcane compared to today’s effortless image machines.

Dorfman’s portrait photos, brightly lit and taken against a white backdrop in her Cambridge studio, appear cheerfully matter-of-fact and unpretentious, much like the artist herself. “In my life I’ve worked really hard not to be down,” she says. “I don’t like to take pictures of people who are sad.”

Indeed, the saddest passages in the film are those devoted to Ginsberg’s death and Polaroid’s bankruptcy. At such times, The B-Side starts to feel like a parable about the cycles of life and obsolescence, the speeding up of time, and the dematerialization of memory. But unlike some of Morris’s best-known films, there’s no moment — at least there wasn’t for me — where this portrait of a wonderful misfit either transcends its confines to achieve universal resonance or plunges into total weirdness (or does both). In some ways this is refreshing; not every documentary needs to culminate in a life-affirming takeaway or dramatic twist. Perhaps what’s slightly disappointing about The B-Side is that it comes very close to taking up weighty existential questions about how we choose to represent and memorialize ourselves, and how images mediate our relationships to our loved ones, but it stops short. Maybe Morris’s portrait of Dorfman is simply the more manicured and posed official one, rather than the messy and unguarded B-side.

Still from The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (2016) (courtesy NEON)
Still from The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (2016)

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is playing in theaters nationwide, including the Angelika Film Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City.

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