Elsa Dorfman, J59, is known for her oversize portraits of celebrities and civilians alike. Until her retirement two years ago, the acclaimed photographer, now eighty, specialized in portrait photography using an enormous Polaroid camera, and many of her photos became as celebrated as her subjects. For her, however, the beauty has always been in the B-sides: the quirky, less-than-perfect outtakes that her clients, for one reason or another, didn’t choose. Her studio, tucked behind the Cambridge, Massachusetts, home she shares with her husband, the civil liberties lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate, brims with thousands of these rejected images.
They’ve now been brought to light in The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, a new documentary from the acclaimed director Errol Morris. During the movie, which Variety calls a “gentle-hearted gem,” Dorfman muses on everything from her life to the dwindling supply of special film for her beloved 20-by-24-inch camera. (Polaroid went bankrupt in 2001 and stopped making instant film in 2009.)
Dorfman ventured into large-format photography in 1979, when she took a course at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts on how to use the enormous, experimental Polaroid. At the time, the 240-pound camera seemed suited only to shooting large works of art, but in Dorfman’s hands it proved as flexible as a gymnast. Over more than three decades, countless subjects—from neighborhood families to the iconic chef Julia Child and the poet Allen Ginsberg—came to Dorfman to experience something uncommonly personal: a vision of themselves as seen through an inimitable artist’s eyes.
Dorfman’s path to art was meandering. She grew up in Roxbury and Newton, Massachusetts, the oldest of three girls. By age nine she had reached her adult height of five feet, five inches. “I think that had something to do with my attitude,” she told me recently during a conversation in her home. “I was treated as a grown-up and I was very verbal. I didn’t need to be taller and I certainly didn’t need to pay attention to boys. They were all shorter than I was.”
At Tufts, she majored in French, studied in Paris, and was the executive editor of the Tufts Weekly, where, in her “DorPost” column, she took on, among other things, her classmates’ penchant for wearing the school colors of brown and blue. (“It simply is not the most attractive combination.”) After a stint at New York’s famed Grove Press—which published many of the Beat writers, including Ginsberg, who would become a lifelong friend—Dorfman considered becoming an elementary school teacher, but instead discovered a passion for photography after borrowing a Hasselblad camera. During the 1970s, she sold her black-and-white photos from a shopping cart in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, and eventually won a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College.
Dorfman’s art wound up taking her far, of course, but did she ever expect to become this famous? “No,” she told Morris in the documentary. “But I can’t say I didn’t work at it.” In celebration of the movie’s release, we asked Dorfman to tell us the stories behind four of her large-format prints, which you’ll find in the gallery below.