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.
The B-Side takes its name from Dorfman’s practice of taking two photos of each subject and keeping the rejected image, images she collects in massive flat files arranged by year, one on top of the other. It might also refer to the film itself. The Interrotron is nowhere to be found and Morris largely abandons his familiar approach while talking to an artist famous for applying the same technique over and over again. Like the best b-side, it’s the work of an artist stretching out a bit, going for something that might not be an easy fit into the rest of the catalog.
That doesn’t mean The B-Side should be taken for a minor effort. Dorfman’s a fascinating character whose sunny demeanor, much like her generally cheerful photos, contains hidden depths. And beneath it all, Morris’ latest is a film about the passage of time. Dorfman’s most frequently photographed subjects — her family and herself — age between sessions. Ginsberg’s passing leads her to reflect on how photographs might find their true meaning after death.
Then there’s her chosen medium itself, which is seemingly doomed by the financially troubled Polaroid’s decision to discontinue the film used by its behemoth cameras. For decades, Dorfman found a way to express herself and to capture a moment in before it disappeared. Now she’s the master of an art that will soon fall victim to time. The years in her photo files will pile up until they stop. But at least before that happens, whether or not Dorfman or Morris would admit it, The B-Side at least captures a bit of the soul of the woman behind those extraordinary images.