Errol Morris’ “The B-Side” is compact and so vast, so bittersweet and so kind and giving, a brilliantly casual portrait of Morris’ cheery friend and Cambridge neighbor. This deceptively simple gem is built upon a conversation with septuagenarian photographer Dorfman after her retirement, perhaps only a single afternoon in her archives, a reliquary of stacked photo boxes, scrawled names and labels, flat files packed full with a life’s work.
She’s a wry storyteller as she pulls print after print, some she hasn’t looked at in thirty years, her indelible Massachusetts accent a delight.
“I’m looking here at a picture of Ferlinghetti,” Dorfman says, opening a box of poets in brimming youth, at the turn of the 1960s: Robert Lowell, James Tate, and her soon-to-be lifelong friend, Allen Ginsberg. “I was sitting there on the couch. What was easier than taking pictures?” And Auden. Jorge Luis Borges. Venturing out of Boston into New York City, she was hired by Grove Press, situated in the middle of Greenwich Village, at the time of the “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” court case. And more black-and-white prints and contact sheets from the unassuming bystander-witness to the Beat moment: Anaïs Nin, Andrea Dworkin, W. H. Auden, Ed Sanders, Audre Lorde, Anne Sexton, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Ginsberg together. Her life’s work came with her introduction to Polaroid cameras. Large-format Polaroids by the thousands became Dorfman’s medium. “The 20×24 took Cambridge by blitz!” she exclaims. Small gestures accrue. Her hands hold, pass over her long-finisher work. She adopted her friend Ginsberg’s “acceptance of everydayness.” And his passing inspires her to note, offhandedly, as is her splendid fashion, “Maybe that’s when photographs have the ultimate meaning—when the person dies.”
“The part of the process that fascinated me is the element of perishability, fugitive color, fugitive images,” Morris later muses to Dorfman, whose face stills. A long pause. “I try to deny it.” 76m. (Ray Pride)
“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” opens Friday, July 9 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.