Errol Morris' The B-Side Examines Elsa Dorfman — and What We've Lost in the Selfie Age

Jul 19, 2017 at 6:00 am
Elsa Dorfman's large-format Polaroids are always the second-best of the bunch.
Elsa Dorfman's large-format Polaroids are always the second-best of the bunch. COURTESY OF NEON

Does family photography still have meaning in the age of Instagram and Snapchat? There was a time when personal photography resonated with ideas of intimate family life. Think of the ads for movies such as Ordinary People or Kramer vs. Kramer, in which a torn photograph represents the very disruption of the family itself. A photograph conveyed substance, carried a sense of history. The contemporary selfie is, in contrast, deliberately casual and almost self-consciously light in content. It's not meant to signify, merely to register; its ephemeral nature, in the case of Snapchat, is even built into the technology.

Filmmaker Errol Morris has spent a lot of time — in print as well as in his films — thinking about what photographic images mean in our culture, what they provide and reveal. His films have examined issues both significant (The Fog of War, The Unknown Known) and sensational (Tabloid, The Thin Blue Line), and he usually tries to maintain a level of cool impartiality toward his subjects. (He even invented a camera extension called the Interrotron, which allows his interviewees to maintain eye contact with him while appearing to look directly into the lens.)

Morris' latest film, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, might seem comparatively mundane after his work grappling with Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, but there's a low-key thoughtfulness to it that sneaks up on you. It may seem like a homespun blend of home movie and '60s nostalgia, but it gradually winds its way to a serious reflection on the power of images, on what we've captured on film and how we remember it.

Elsa Dorfman's medium was Polaroids: 20x24 portraits. - COURTESY OF NEON
Elsa Dorfman's medium was Polaroids: 20x24 portraits.

Elsa Dorfman has, until recently, been a relatively unknown figure in photography, although she's worked steadily in the field for more than 50 years. Serving briefly as a secretary for Barney Rosset Jr.'s legendary Grove Press (I don't like empty superlatives like "legendary," but I'll make an exception for Rosset, a fearless publisher and fierce opponent of censorship), she would occasionally be recruited to take photographs of the literary figures who dropped by.

But Dorfman didn't begin taking pictures seriously until 1963, when she returned home to Cambridge, Massachusetts. By the 1970s she had published a book, Elsa's Housebook: A Woman's Photojournal, and was selling prints from a shopping cart in Harvard Square.

Dorfman's career reached a turning point in 1980 when the Polaroid Corporation made a rare, large-format version of its famous instant camera (one of only eight produced) available for rental to local artists in Boston. From that moment, Dorfman began specializing in 20x24 portraits, eventually setting up her own studio in 1987.

In addition to continuing the personal themes of her earlier work — portraits of herself and her family — she opened her studio to the public, but with a proviso: Owing to the expense of the uncommon film, she only took two pictures of each client, keeping one (the B-sides of the title) for her personal archive. This collection of often inferior or flawed shots lets her consider the intimacy of portraiture and the unique slice-of-time quality of each shot. Joyfully going through her archives for Morris' benefit, she proclaims, "I'm interested in the surfaces of people. I'm totally not interested in capturing their soul."

If Dorfman and Morris are content to leave souls alone, capturing time is something else altogether. The B-Side examines time and history through shifts in technology.

Dorfman utilized a rare, large-format version of the Polaroid Corporation's famous instant camera (one of only eight produced). - COURTESY OF NEON
Dorfman utilized a rare, large-format version of the Polaroid Corporation's famous instant camera (one of only eight produced).

It might be difficult for some viewers in the smartphone era to realize the promise of Polaroid in the context of twentieth-century modernity. The Polaroid cameras, from the boxy black-and-white Swinger ("It's more than a camera, it's almost alive. It's only nineteen dollars and ninety-five!") to the richer color range of the SX-70, eliminated the mysteries of the darkroom, or the waiting process of having your pictures developed at your local drugstore or drive-through Fox Photo stand. In an excerpt from a Polaroid promotional film, The B-Side shows camera inventor Edwin Land talking about a future where a camera will be an extension of the human body, a future we've probably reached. The irony, as we see Dorfman sifting through old technological relics in her studio, is that Polaroid cameras, so redolent of post-war technological optimism, have become antiques.

The sly genius of Morris' film is that this technological history lesson becomes clearest when it has been filtered through Dorfman's personal history (she was nearly 80 when the film was shot). As Morris lets her relate her own history, we become aware of the cultural shifts over half a century, of the passage of time and the graying of Dorfman and her recurring models (poet Allen Ginsberg and Dorfman's husband, civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate, are the most frequently photographed).

"Maybe that's when the photographs have their ultimate meaning...when the person's died," Dorfman observes. She notes that people tend to look instinctively for continuity in photographs, but shrugs it off, saying, "There probably is no narrative." What she captures in its place, and what The B-Side reveals, is an understated glimpse of mortality, of aging and of photography's ability to transcend the passage of time.