Photographer Elsa Dorfman Charms in New Documentary The B-Side

By
Elsa Dorfman. Photo: Elsa Dorfman

Photographer Elsa Dorfman is one of few people in the world who uses the massive 20 x 24-foot Polaroid camera, with which she’s captured everyone from Beat poetry legends like close friend Allen Ginsberg to everyday families and friends.

Dorfman, an unassuming woman with a “pahk the cah” Massachusetts accent and an infectious laugh, isn’t the likeliest subject of an Errol Morris documentary; the director usually trains the steely eye of his Interrotron camera setup on people like former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and soldiers involved in the horrors of Abu Ghraib.

But his new film The B-Side — so named for the photos Dorfman’s clients declined to take with them, sort of like the b-sides of records — is a long time coming for the friends and fellow photography fanatics. Opening today in New York City, The B-Side focuses on Dorfman as a self-trained photographer who chooses to work with a rare and enormous Polaroid camera with an ever-dwindling backstock of film. Here, the Cut asked Dorfman about being filmed for the documentary, her self-portraits, and being a woman in a male-dominated industry. She comments on a selection of her photos in the slideshow ahead.

How did it feel to be in front of the camera without being in control of it? What was it like?

For years [Errol] said, “Oh, I’m going to make a movie about you.” I said, “Fine. Fine. Errol, you have great ideas.” I never ever, ever expected until he called me like three days before. He said, “Well, I have a crew.” I [felt like saying], “Well, I have a dentist appointment. What are you even talking about?” It only took four or five days, and we didn’t do it all in one week so it was like I had no idea that it would actually be something … I’m thrilled and surprised. It’s sort of like, “What?”

One of the things you said in the documentary was that you took self-portraits to make other people feel comfortable so they would know that you knew how it felt. Did you find it empowering to take those self-portraits?

I felt that … if I took pictures of myself and I was dumpy and didn’t really know how to put on makeup, and one thing or another, and I could take good pictures of myself or pictures that I liked and other people liked, then they would trust me and they would believe that it was possible. It was sort of like a passport, rather than, “Oh, I’ll take your picture lying in front of the truck, but don’t expect me to get in front of the truck.” It helped the sort of unspoken contract that I’m putting the Band-Aid on you, but I haven’t been afraid to put the Band-Aid on me, or the adhesive or the cast.

A lot of women, especially younger women, have reclaimed the self-portrait especially with the ease of digital photography, as a way of feeling, a way of self-acceptance.

Well, that’s exactly what it is, what I’m saying. They see that I can live with being imperfect and it hasn’t stopped me. It’s all magic. After the fact, you begin to think, “Well, there must be something to this,” but while you’re doing it, you go, “Well, I have nothing else to do and I’m here with me.”

Photographer Elsa Dorfman Charms in The B-Side