The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography


If you have been around photography long enough, and especially around the Boston area, you will be familiar with Elsa Dorfman's 20x24 Polaroid portraits.  Since the early 1980's they have been a kind of institution onto themselves with connections going back to the origins of portrait photography.

Late last year Elsa announced that she would be hanging up her apron. Film availability and reliability as well as the physical process of making these pictures at 79 pointed to retirement.  The news first reached me in a prominent New York Times piece (front page, below the fold, if memory serves). I buy one copy a week on my NY runs—I prefer the Metro edition version—and as coincidence would have it that was the day it ran.  It turned out to also be a wake up call to the filmmaker Errol Morris, a longtime friend of Elsa's. He'd had the idea to make a film about her earlier but her imminent retirement forced the issue. 


Filming began in the spring—on location in her home, her framing studio, and ultimately her shooting studio space on Mass Ave. Errol and his crew also spent a day filming here in the lab, which was an interesting experience. Having been an admirer and follower of his films over the span of his career it was also an honor to collaborate with him. In the day of shooting here the film went from a short to a full-length documentary.


I was surprised to learn that it would be ready in time to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month. It then went on to the Toronto Film Festival and next up is the New York Film Festival in October. 

As part of the Telluride premiere we prepared an exhibition of a selected group of 16 20x24 Polaroids, one from the 40x80 camera when it resided at the MFA/Boston as well as a group of 14 B&W images from Elsa's archives. It all came together beautifully for the premiere. Elsa and her posse were on hand as was her 20x24 Polaroid camera and she made 47 portraits right there.  So much for retirement.

We are now working on documenting and conserving her 40x80's—most notably the portraits that she made of Allen Ginsburg with it.  Wow, right?  Keep an eye out for the film at a theater near you.