Elsa Dorfman didn’t set out to take photos. As she tells it in The B-Side: Elsa Dofrman’s Portrait Photography, a new documentary by Errol Morris, she didn’t set out to do much at all. But she knew what she didn’t want to do, which was wait around to get married. So she got a job making copies at Grove Press when it was the center of the literary counter-culture, allowing her to brush shoulders with some of the major figures of the day, including Allen Ginsberg, who’d become a lifelong friend. Then she started teaching, which didn’t really suit her. Then someone loaned her a camera and she started taking pictures, which did. She never really stopped, eventually falling in love with a huge camera that became her tool of choice — and eventually served as a reminder that all things must pass.
Specifically, Dorfman fell for the Polaroid 20×24 camera, a towering, large-format camera that produces big, sharp versions of the company’s famous instant photos. Polaroid introduced the camera in the late ‘70s, by which time Dorfman had already published a book and made a name for herself taking photos of intellectual heroes and peddling them on Boston campuses. The 20×24, however, changed everything. “I was looking for a medium,” she tells Morris, “and I just found it.”
Since finding it, she’s developed an instantly recognizable aesthetic, bringing the same approach to famous subjects and paying customers alike, shooting everyone against solid backgrounds in photos that look informal yet carefully, tellingly composed. Her past subjects have included Morris, her longtime friend. Their easy intimacy helps make The B-Side a delight to watch. Dorfman is a lively, cheerful presence who’s clearly at ease talking to someone who admires and understands what she does.
But it would be easy to sense a kinship even if they’d never met prior to the film. Dorfman shoots her subjects gazing into the camera. Morris invented the Interrotron, a device that allows him to interview his subjects as they look into his eyes while looking directly at the camera. Both believe that photography and, by extension, movies cannot capture the truth. (“I’m really interested in the surfaces of people. I’m totally not interested in capturing their souls.”) At times, The B-Side plays as much like a buddy movie as a documentary, even if Morris remains off camera and largely silent.