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Errol Morris & Elsa Dorfman: Kindred spirits behind the camera

Photographer Elsa Dorfman is the subject of the documentary
Photographer Elsa Dorfman is the subject of the documentary "The B-Side" by filmmaker Errol Morris.
Photo credit: Julie Cunnah

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Filmmaker Errol Morris is often drawn to some dark material. In his Oscar-winning "Fog of War," he got former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to talk about his controversial role in the Vietnam War. He profiled a man who devised machines used to execute people on death row in "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr." But in his new movie, "The B-Side," he turns his camera on a jovial artist – his friend, photographer Elsa Dorfman.

"For Elsa these photographs are very much alive. People, the moment that the photograph was taken, her relationship with people in the photograph. And I thought, Well, this is a movie. All I have to do is get Elsa to talk about her pictures and I'll have something."

Dorfman, now 80 years old, lives with her husband Harvey near Morris and his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She started taking photos in the 1960’s, first of herself and then of beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But the style of portraiture that she became most known for is a large format Polaroid. Specifically, the ones known as the 20x24. A size that Polaroid stopped making.

But what makes her style distinct, according to Errol Morris, is not just the form of Elsa Dorfman's photos but how she engages with the people she's photographing.

"I had the good fortune to have my picture taken many times by Elsa. I had the good fortune to have my picture taken by [Richard] Avedon years ago. And their work is very different but there is something similar. You stand in front of the camera, he engages you in conversation and you forget the fact that you’re having your picture taken. You’re involved in a relationship not so much with his camera but with him and then all of a sudden – POOF! The picture is taken. Almost as a surprise. Actually, I won’t even say almost as a surprise. As a surprise."

One thing that's remarkable about Dorfman's approach is that unlike other photographers she doesn't taken many shots to find the best one. She tells The Frame that since the film is so expensive she only takes one or two photos per session. 

The B-Side, a documentary about Elsa Dorfman by Errol Morris. This is facebook timeline photo.
The B-Side, a documentary about Elsa Dorfman by Errol Morris. This is facebook timeline photo.
The B-Side, Neon

Depsite their different uses of the camera, Errol Morris tells The Frame that Elsa is "clearly a kindred spirit" of his. He says, "It’s about this odd relationship between a photographer, a process of photography and the subjects." He goes on to illustrate their simpatico artistic approach with the following anecdote.

"There’s a composer in Cambridge, Massachusetts and he came to have his picture taken on the 20x24. And he and his wife got all dressed up to the nines and preceded to park themselves in front of her lens. And Elsa refused to take the picture. And they later complained to me. They say, 'How dare her? We were paying. How dare she for not taking our picture?' And I said, 'Elsa was completely right. She should only take pictures under her… She wasn’t interested in seeing you all dressed up. She was interested in seeing you.' And it’s part of the essence of her art."

To hear the conversation with Errol Morris and Elsa Dorfman, click the play button at the top of the page. "The B-Side" is in theaters now.


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