"THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN'S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY" — 3 stars — Elsa Dorfman; R (graphic nude images and brief language); Broadway
In a day when most photography is experienced through a tiny LCD screen on a social media platform, a large-format photographer like Elsa Dorfman tends to draw attention. "The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography," a new documentary from Oscar-winning director Errol Morris, celebrates Dorfman and her unique and vanishing medium.
Over opening credits, disembodied voices announce the end of the Polaroid era. Decades of instant print photography have come to an end, finally crushed by the digital Goliath.
It's hard to find anyone over the age of 30 who doesn't have some kind of Polaroid memory — and those who do may enjoy 2012's "Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film" as a complementary piece to "The B-Side" — but Dorfman made her mark in a different, and much more rare wing of the company's instant photography market.
Most of "The B-Side" examines Dorfman's passion for Polaroid's rare 20 X 24 camera. Only a few were made, and Dorfman spent years renting the camera, eventually obtaining one she could call her own. Morris' film spends most of its 76-minute run time visiting with the photographer as she combs through her vast archive.
Most of her subjects were everyday clients looking for a unique studio portrait, but occasionally a familiar face pops up. The beginning of the film covers Dorfman's time in the New York publishing business of the late 1950s, where she first met the famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg. She didn't actually pick up a camera until years later, after moving to Massachusetts to become a teacher, but once she did, Ginsberg became one of Dorfman's favorite subjects.
Her friendship with Ginsberg is one of the primary threads that runs through the film (in fact, "The B-Side's" R-rating primarily comes from its inclusion of Dorfman's famous nude portrait of the counter-culture icon). We also see lots of file footage from various television interviews, home movies and, of course, private photographs that show the artist's evolution.
Morris' straightforward film is more or less framed as a retirement gift to the charming photographer, who is interviewed in her work space, surrounded by archives and equipment and technologies that feel like they are also passing from history. Dorfman smiles and laughs her way through her interview with a touch of silly warmth, almost embarrassed to be the center of attention.
For anyone with a background or interest in photography, "The B-Side" — named for Dorfman's extensive archive of reject prints — will document a piece of rare history. It's impressive enough to see the massive 20 X 24 camera in action, a piece of equipment so large you had to wheel it around to use it, but then you learn about how Dorfman eventually stepped into even rarer company when she started using Polaroid's mammoth 40 X 80 camera.
It's curious to observe the change in her work from her early photographs — taken with traditional 35mm cameras, featuring a traditional photojournalism look — and her signature large format work, which looks to be entirely made up of subjects standing against a monochromatic background, almost like they were lined up for school pictures.
Yet there is a consistent quality to the images, and even to their subjects, which is echoed by Dorfman's own philosophy. At one point, she claims she doesn't want to photograph people who are sad or heartbroken. Her role in the universe, she says, is "to make people feel better." Anyone who watches "The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography" will agree that she did so in a big way.
"The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography" is rated R for some graphic nude images and brief language; running time: 76 minutes.