‘The B-Side’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Robert Abele cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Large pic­tures, small joys and an ar­chive’s ra­di­ance are the build­ing blocks for the charm of­fen­sive that is “The B-Side: Elsa Dorf­man’s Por­trait Pho­tog­ra­phy,” Er­rol Mor­ris’ win­ning doc­u­men­tary about his un­sung artist friend, a fix­ture in Cam­bridge, Mass., whose spe­cialty is large-for­mat Po­laroids and the invit­ing in­ti­macy she draws from her sub­jects.

Since 1980, this unas­sum­ing prac­ti­tioner of the pose/ click arts has worked with one of a half-dozen or so of the big, boxy 20x24 cam­eras hand­made by the com­pany’s founder, Ed­win H. Land. “The B-Side” will make you be­lieve the one in Dorf­man’s stu­dio is the only one that’s ever mat­tered.

Mor­ris’ in­ter­ests have typ­i­cally taken him into dark cor­ners, mostly per­tain­ing to death, ex­is­tence, war, bro­ken sys­tems and in­jus­tice. To get what he’s wanted from his in­ter­vie­wees — and to al­low us to see them the way Mor­ris ques­tions them he in­vented a de­vice called the In­ter­rotron, which lets us lock eyes with Don­ald Rums­feld (“The Un­known Known”) or Robert McNa­mara (the Os­car-win­ning “The Fog of War”).

But this time around, he’s set aside the In­ter­rotron — Dorf­man is clearly talk­ing to the side of the lens — and set­tled in like a kid given a pri­vate tour of the toy store. He’s in an un­com­monly sweet, cel­e­bra­tory mode here. This is the rare Mor­ris movie that feels led by the per­son­al­ity of its star fig­ure, in this case Dorf­man’s wry pos­i­tiv­ity and love of what she does, rather than his need to probe.

You can al­most sense Mor­ris smil­ing off-cam­era as she pulls each ex­po­sure from her file draw­ers for rem­i­nisc­ing and new­found scru­tiny — that’s how strong and warm his ad­mi­ra­tion is for Dorf­man and the hum­ble rich­ness of her work.

Dorf­man had been a young sec­re­tary in New York at leg­endary Beat pub­lisher Grove Press in the 1960s, where she be­friended au­thors like Allen Gins­berg. But dur­ing her stud­ies in Bos­ton to get a teach­ing de­gree, a col­league handed her a Has­sel­blad cam­era, and the leap to pho­tog­ra­pher was in­stan­ta­neous. She started with self-por­traits and can­did grabs of note­wor­thy pals — Gins­burg, Robert Cree­ley, An­drea Dworkin — sell­ing prints for $2 out of a shop­ping cart in Har­vard Square. (“Sin­gu­lar Op­por­tu­nity,” her sign sun­nily promised.)

She pub­lished a book of pho­to­graphs in 1974 — sub­ti­tled “A Woman’s Pho­to­jour­nal” — and soon af­ter, Po­laroid brought out Land’s 200pound be­he­moth. Af­ter first renting it and dis­cov­er­ing how its sense of scale matched her own am­bi­tions, she turned to com­mis­sioned large-scale por­trai­ture full time. Gins­berg was her first 20x24 sub­ject in 1980 — “he wasn’t guarded, he would dis­arm him­self ” — and pic­tures of him across their life­long friend­ship, and of her hus­band, civil rights lawyer Har­vey Sil­ver­glate, form a kind of emo­tional through­line in “The B-Side.”

The ti­tle is a kind of af­fir­ma­tion of the jour­ney­woman’s aes­thetic sen­si­bil­ity. Dorf­man could only af­ford to pro­duce two ex­po­sures for each client, so the un­cho­sen pic­ture be­came the “B.” Yet she’s loath to con­sider them re­jects, find­ing beauty in mis-pro­cessed color, im­per­fec­tions or closed eyes. “This is not a bad blink,” she says, hold­ing one pho­to­graph. Her aim is not to un­earth the soul, she says, but to cap­ture peo­ple at their surest about who they are. If any­thing, the smil­ing fam­i­lies, flam­boy­ant posers and in­stantly snapped/in­stantly en­joyed ex­pres­sions of joie de vivre amount to a years­long ex­am­i­na­tion of the pic­ture­taker as well: Dorf­man’s own ebul­lience can’t help but in­fuse ev­ery pho­to­graph.

A tinge of melan­choly punc­tures this ap­peal­ing char­ac­ter study, though, when the movie ad­dresses her dwin­dling stock of film and chem­i­cals in the wake of Po­laroid’s de facto end as a com­pany. Her medium ob­so­lete, Dorf­man is prac­ti­cally re­tired now. She was never an art dar­ling or sought-af­ter pho­tog­ra­pher or even one of artist-friendly Po­laroid’s “pets,” she says. But she’d found her call­ing and dis­cov­ered her per­fect tool, and as Mor­ris’ movie makes beau­ti­fully clear, that was ev­ery­thing.

Neon

DI­REC­TOR Er­rol Mor­ris paints a warm pic­ture of the charm­ing Elsa Dorf­man, above, in “The B-Side.”

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