Portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman didn’t really believe that the American documentarian Errol Morris was going to make a film about her.
“She didn’t think I was going to go through with it. She was humouring me,” Morris said in an interview from his office in Cambridge, Mass. “I had a very strong feeling there was a movie to be made; I had it early on. I had spent an afternoon with Elsa in her garage … Elsa would pull a Polaroid out of her flat files and start telling a story. That was a movie, even if I didn’t know all the details yet.”
But it was one on a long list of hypothetical projects for Morris, a filmmaker better known for acquitting the wrongfully convicted (The Thin Blue Line) and investigating the powerful (The Fog of War; The Unknown Known) than for his occasional portraits of eccentrics.
Then, the day arrived when movers were coming to take down the giant Polaroids hanging in Dorfman’s home so they could be copied and preserved, and Morris faced a deadline. Was he making a film about his old friend – and fellow resident of the leafy Boston suburb – or wasn’t he?
He was, and the results are The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, a stroll through the 80-year-old Dorfman’s career as the photographer pulls out the images of her famous friends and clients.
Dorfman isn’t exactly a household name, but if you know a picture of poet Allen Ginsberg backstage with Bob Dylan during the 1975 Rolling Thunder Review, you have seen her work. As a young woman, Dorfman was hired as a secretary at Grove Press in New York’s Greenwich Village, where she immersed herself in the cultural scene and struck up a lifelong friendship with Ginsberg. She took up photography when she moved back to the Boston area and would shoot her famous connections, including Anaïs Nin, W.H. Auden, Joni Mitchell, Andrea Dworkin and Robert Creeley, at concerts and coffee houses or on her antique couch in Cambridge, selling her pictures from a shopping cart in Harvard Square.
After her discovery of the large-scale instant Polaroid camera, that work gave way to her oversized portraits of smiling couples and happy families created for private clients. Over the years, Morris recalls, she shot him, his family, his dog and the image of former U.S. secretary of defence Robert McNamara that appears on the poster for The Fog of War. She was a devotee of the big-format Polaroid cameras, shooting the larger-than-life 20x24s and ultimately 40x80s that could show the subject’s full body, but the company went bust and the film stock has disappeared. (The brand was sold to new owners and there are also grassroots attempts to revive instant chemical photography.) The B-Side, named for the alternative shots that clients rejected when they made their selections, is something of an elegy both for the photographer as she retires from the business and for her disappearing medium.
“I have always been moved by Elsa,” says Morris, who first got to know her in the 1980s. “I consider her a kindred spirit. She’s about self-presentation, allowing us to present ourselves to her camera. It’s a collaboration, more than what we think of as just ‘taking’ a picture.”
Dorfman tells Morris there is no truth in photography: She points out that any contact sheet is full of alternative images that lack the historic weight that has been assigned to the final choice. It’s an observation that intrigues a filmmaker famous for getting his subjects to speak truths to his camera.
Morris’s particular invention is the Interrotron, a device that uses the same technology as a Teleprompter to let a person speak to an image of the interviewer while still looking into the camera. This both encourages subjects to drop their guard with the documentarian and eliminates the distance that can be created on screen as interviewees look over the camera or off to one side, seeking their interlocutor. The results, so notable in interviews with former U.S. defence secretaries McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld in The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, create powerful films where the subjects seem to speak directly to the viewer.
But for The B-Side, Morris put the Interrotron away. Partly, it was a practical choice: Dorfman needed to be able to move about her studio and hold up photos. Partly, it was a technical one; ever since he created the First Person series for the Bravo channel in 2000, Morris has experimented with using a dozen cameras of varied sizes to get multiple angles of his subjects, and says the technique – which he dubs the Megatron – is now much improved by increasingly high-quality mini cameras.
And partly, the looser focus of The B-Side seems to have been an emotional choice. An anti-glamorous and unpretentious soul who has often photographed herself dressed in kooky clothes or holding birthday balloons, Dorfman is an ebullient storyteller, a generous subject with nothing to hide. Plus, it’s her photographs that take centre stage, especially her many images, both intimate snaps and large-scale posed portraits, of Ginsburg who, being something of an exhibitionist, sometimes posed nude.
Morris figures the two were actually in the same profession.
“One thing I didn’t realize when I first started the movie, Elsa is a poet: she talks about the attempt to nail down the now and the now is fleeing in front of us,” he said. “I once thought that the ridiculous and the profound are closely connected. There is something ridiculous about Elsa but also profound.”
This gentle, loving doc, the filmmaker insists, is not a change of direction in his work.
“There have been many elegiac moments in films I have made. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control [a group biography of an animal tamer, a topiary gardener, a robotics engineer and a mole-rat specialist] was for me an elegy for my parents, who had just died.”
And Morris is still working on true-crime projects: Wormwood, his forthcoming series for Netflix, combines interviews and dramatic recreations to investigate the mysterious death of U.S. government scientist Frank Olson in 1953. The documentarian shot it using his multiple-camera technique and hopes it will be ready to air this fall.
“I have always been interested in political projects,” says Morris, who recently told one interviewer that U.S. President Donald Trump is insane and now adds, “That’s putting it kindly … There is a strong feeling that one should weigh in; so much of what is going on in the world is appalling, utterly appalling. To remain silent seems indefensible.”
But until Wormwood airs and the next political film comes along, he’s just glad the optimistic Dorfman is getting her moment in the sun: “You hope you have captured something emotional and powerful.”
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography opens June 23 in Toronto and Vancouver, and July 7 in Montreal.Report Typo/Error