It is rather fitting that Errol Morris’ most gentle film to date focuses on a photographer who has no interest in taking unhappy photos. His latest work The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is a loving tribute to his good friend Elsa Dorfman, a self-proclaimed nice Jewish girl from Massachusetts who found her calling in photography late in life. Only picking up a camera for the first-time at age 28, the majority of Dorfman’s four decade career has been defined by her large format Polaroid portraits.
Morris dedicates a large portion of the film to the early stages of Dorfman’s career. The septuagenarian retiree sheds plenty of light on everything from her post-collegiate life as a single Jewish woman living on her own in New York, which was practically unheard of in those days, to her days at Grove Press interacting with Beat Generation writers, including good friend Allen Ginsberg. The amiable Dorfman speaks with fond recollection of her early black and white photographic work that saw her capturing iconic literary and musical figures like Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell.
Dorfman may have a deep love affair with photography, but she does buy into the notion that pictures are capture life as it happens. She openly admits that what she loves about photography is “its not real at all.” Citing how you can take 20 pictures seconds apart and each one will be different.
The breezy nature of The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography will no doubt feel like a stark shift in tone for those who prefer their Morris films with a healthy serving of vigour. As charming as the film is, it does lack that certain punch that usually makes Morris’ aesthetics so enthralling. It is important to remember though that even a light-hearted Morris film can still be packed with engaging content.
One needs to only look at the latter sections of the film, where the discussion shifts to the death of the Polaroid camera, for proof of this. Dorfman’s lament at the demise of Polaroid not only speaks to her love of the rare 20×24 instant camera she famously used to capture her images, but also the fear of what will become of her vast archive of images. In a world where imperfections can be digitally erased or altered with a flick of a thumb, who will preserve these pictures from chemical decay? Will the tools to do so still even exist?
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography may not be the most biting work of Errol Morris’ exquisite canon, but Dorfman’s delightful persona makes this portrait of an artist rather engaging.