Film Review: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

An octogenarian pioneer of instamatic photography as art is glowingly featured in this likeable doc.
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The title of this warmly affectionate and deeply respectful documentary about portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman refers to her habit of presenting clients with two finished prints to choose from. In many cases, she chose to save the rejects—the “b-sides”—and they make up good part of her archive, the future of which is presently in some doubt, for Dorfman has announced her decision to professionally retire.

Although still mobile and aesthetically astute, the 80-year-old portraitist seems more than ready to throw in the towel for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that the technology of the Polaroid camera, which formed the very crux of her creativity, has, like all forms of photography in the old sense of the word involving cameras and darkrooms, become obsolete. One senses, too, a kind of world-weary malaise on Dorfman’s part. Resolutely down-to-earth and authentically 1960s/early 1970s in her dress and attitude, although she describes herself as a “very lucky little Jewish girl” she was never the darling of the all-important New York art scene, which often seems to be more about the mystique and promotional energy of the artist rather than any real merit of their work. After an early Manhattan stint as a secretary at the prestigious, groundbreaking Grove Press, Dorfman moved back to her hometown, Cambridge, Mass., where she married civil-rights lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate and taught fifth-grade school before becoming interested in photography at the relatively late age of 28.

Her New York experience, however, brought her the friendship of poet Allen Ginsberg, who here emerges as something of a saturnine muse to Dorfman, who photographed him many times, sometimes stark naked before her rare and hard-won Polaroid 20 x 24-inch camera. Other famous subjects whose glowing captures are spotlit in The B-Side are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and a host of other writers, poets and musicians. Great and chatty company herself, Dorfman, who also happily appears to have been often at the right place at the right time, recalls the awed reverence with which professional photographers viewed the first Polaroid instamatics: “No more dark room!” Sadly, that company went bankrupt and ceased production, but not before Dorfman stocked up on the last available 20 x 24 instant film. That resourcefulness and drive have been what keeps this feisty, funny old dame chugging along, and although rather elegiac in tone, as she and director Errol Morris pore through her rich, extensive and scrupulously arranged archive, the film has a resolute and bracing survivor’s spirit. The pure spunk of its subject, with her myriad, sometimes rueful recollections of a long life lived freely and well, helps to hurtle it past the confines of mere arty nostalgia; you’ll feel that the 80 minutes spent in the company of this humane artist is time well spent.

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