The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography – A Review
I’m picky about which ones I watch when it comes to documentaries. If you have read some of my other work, I will gravitate towards documentaries about history, mainly military history. While I love listening to people talk about their photography, often I wouldn’t say I like to watch documentaries about the greats. However, I have read some biographies of other photographers. So when my good friend Chris talked about a documentary film about Elsa Dorfman, I was immediately drawn into how Chris described the film. Now, if you haven’t heard of Elsa Dorfman, don’t feel too bad; I had never heard of her in any meaningful way either. But when it comes to Polaroid, I appreciate the medium but haven’t always gotten along.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is a documentary film released in 2016 to mark Elsa’s retirement. It is a retirement not by choice but out of lack of materials. The film is a love letter to Elsa’s work, almost a kitchen table conversation over coffee. Elsa’s career spans fifty years, starting back with her teacher handing her a Hasselblad (without telling her that it’s a ‘good’ camera) and letting her go to work. Elsa looks back at her black and white work with some famous people. Namely, some exciting stories about her interactions with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. She talks about her work at Grove Press and all these stories of her experience in New York City. But the real treat is seeing Elsa work with a monster camera, the Polaroid 20×24, one of only five ever built. She laughs as she describes that it was only through a lot of begging and nagging that Polaroid let her lease one.
So the next day, after learning about the film, I pulled up Netflix after work while waiting for Heather to get home and found the movie. I was drawn in the right from the start, seriously two minutes. I hoped I could get through the entire thing before Heather got home because I honestly didn’t want to stop. The film is actual; it’s honest, it doesn’t portray anything as glamourous. It shows the flaws, the raw emotion; there were even some parts that I was crying (which shouldn’t surprise you, I can weep at Disney movies). And we get to see Elsa relive her career through her portraiture, from the first 20×24 image she took of Allan Ginsberg to the final images. Elsa reflected on life and death, on family and the end of Polaroid.
I also enjoy the play on the title, The B-Side. Elsa always took two 20×24 images of her clients; the A-Side is the one the client picked and took home with them, the second is the reject, and that’s the one she kept. The B-Side. And honestly, these are what makes the film and the memories so real. Because even though she was often surrounded by celebrities, she never saw them as such; these were her friends. Real people, far more interesting to capture them as they are, not as they are seen by the world. It’s well worth a watch if you’re interested in both photography and humanity. Plus, getting to know a bunch of classic cameras, I spotted the Hasselblad and a Nikon F, but the real star remains the 20×24 Polaroid. You can easily find the film on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play and Vimeo.