“The B-Side”: Elsa Dorf­man comes out from be­hind her cam­era

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Michael O'Sul­li­van

★★★5 Rated R. 76 min­utes.

Pho­tog­ra­pher Elsa Dorf­man is known for her large-for­mat Po­laroid por­traits, cre­ated on 20-by-24inch in­stant film, us­ing one of the five cam­eras orig­i­nally built by the com­pany, which stopped mak­ing the spe­cial­ized film af­ter it went bank­rupt in 2008. Dorf­man stock­piled as much of it as she could get her hands on, but as it ran out, the artist, now 80, de­cided to re­tire a cou­ple of years ago.

Di­rected by the idio­syn­cratic doc­u­men­tar­ian Er­rol Mor­ris (“The Un­known Known”), “The B-Side: Elsa Dorf­man’s Por­trait Pho­tog­ra­phy” is a love let­ter to Dorf­man, who is also the film­maker’s friend. Both are based in Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, where Mor­ris and his fam­ily have sat for Dorf­man’s cam­era many times over the years. Now it’s her turn in front of the lens.

“B-Side” is struc­tured, for the most part, as a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Mor­ris and Dorf­man, who is shown pulling out one gi­ant print af­ter an­other from stor­age cab­i­nets as she talks about the sub­jects (in­clud­ing the late writer Allen Gins­berg and other lit­er­ary lu­mi­nar­ies) and her work­ing meth­ods. Typ­i­cally, Dorf­man of­fers clients a se­lec­tion of two shots; one print goes to the cus­tomer, and she keeps the re­ject (or B-side) — which is of­ten, as it turns out, the more in­trigu­ing of the two im­ages.

Along the way, she stops to muse on the ephemer­al­ity of life: Gins­berg’s death, Dorf­man’s ad­vanced age, the demise of Po­laroid and the fact that her once-vi­brant prints are now start­ing to fade all un­der­score a sin­gle theme — one that’s echoed in the still un­re­solved ques­tion of what will be­come of Dorf­man’s archive af­ter she’s gone. Though her work is owned by sev­eral museums, in­clud­ing Har­vard Univer­sity’s Fogg Mu­seum, the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery and the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, no in­sti­tu­tion or pa­tron has yet come for­ward to res­cue her archive from en­croach­ing obliv­ion.

The most in­ter­est­ing parts of this con­ver­sa­tion come when Dorf­man talks about the art of por­trai­ture. “I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in the sur­faces of peo­ple,” she says, in a de­par­ture from what many other por­trait artists say about get­ting be­neath a sub­ject’s skin. “I’m to­tally not in­ter­ested in cap­tur­ing their souls.”

Dorf­man, who makes for a lively and lo­qua­cious sub­ject, is equally con­trar­ian about the pu­ta­tive “truth” of pho­tog­ra­phy, in­sist­ing that it’s pre­cisely the ar­ti­fice — or false­hood — of por­trai­ture that fas­ci­nates her.

As rare and highly spe­cial­ized as her in­stru­ment is, Dorf­man likens the 20by-24-inch cam­era to a crude tool. It’s the “spoon” with which one eats, she says, not the “soup” (i.e., the art) it­self.

In an­other metaphor, Dorf­man com­pares pho­tog­ra­phy to a ham­mer at­tempt­ing to “nail down the now.” In a film that ul­ti­mately be­comes a provoca­tive med­i­ta­tion on im­per­ma­nence, the artist laughs at the fu­til­ity of that ef­fort. “The now,” she says, “is con­stantly rac­ing beyond you.”

Neon

Por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher Elsa Dorf­man found her medium in 1980: Po­laroid's larger-than-life 20-by-24-inch film.

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