Oscar winner paints affectionate portrait of longtime friend, photographer Elsa Dorfman; 'This is a really gifted artist and an incredible human being'
Filmmaker Errol Morris and photographer Elsa Dorfman, it seems safe to say, are kindred spirits.
Both are writers. Both are artists. Both bring a gentle wisdom to their work, a perspicacity no less profound for being understated. Small wonder then that when they met decades ago in Cambridge, Mass. they became fast friends.
Morris has posed for Dorfman's camera -- her preferred instrument a 240-pound Polaroid Land colossus that produces 20 x 24-inch prints. Now he has returned the favor -- in a manner of speaking -- producing a portrait of Dorfman in his new documentary The B-Side: Elsa Dorman's Portrait Photography.
I've looked at photographs [of hers] now over 10, 15, 20, 25 years and each of them becomes more and more important over the years.
The B-Side is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in several more Southern California locations and in Chicago on Friday (July 7), expanding to more cities in the coming weeks (details here).
Dorfman's portraits are instant works of art. As the image is pulled from the device, a pair of rollers crush bladders of chemicals onto positive and negative paper, developing the photograph. From snapshot to printed work the pace is even faster than digital photography, yet as with virtually every analog process associated with image-making, it's a doomed art form. Thus it is in the digital age.
Dorfman, 80, stopped taking her large-format pictures about a year ago, retiring not so much because of age but because Polaroid abandoned making the kind of film necessary for the camera.
"The whole movie is about the passage of time. If anything, it's a kind of elegy -- elegy for the passing of Polaroid, the passing of some of Elsa's closest friends," Morris told Nonfictionfilm.com last week. "She says so many extraordinary things in the film that are totally unscripted, that photography is 'nailing down the now when the now is racing in front of you.' She's effortlessly profound, which I find also interesting. Elsa doesn't try to look smart. I've spent a good part of my life trying to look smart. And Elsa achieves that. It's actually quite amazing -- the art is unassuming, seemingly unassuming, and yet it produces this amazing array of images."
Dorfman is distinct from other famed photographers for many reasons, including her choice of equipment. Where an Arbus or a Cartier-Bresson could snap countless pictures with smaller portable cameras, the size of the Polaroid Land 20 x 24 camera and the cost of the film made it essential to work out of a studio, taking only a small number of pictures of any given subject.
"She takes so few photographs of each person. It's not like you have a contact sheet and you can take out your white marker and circle the ones you feel should be printed. There's a very limited universe of possibilities -- most often two," Morris observed. "She takes two [photos], maybe three at most. If you feel that Elsa really likes you she might take three. But usually two. And then you're given a choice... to pick one. And she keeps the one you don't pick. And you pay for the one you want."
The title of the film derives from the images not selected by the client, the ones her subjects didn't like as much.
"She kept these 'b-side' photographs as she calls them -- the rejects -- she kept them in these flat files and as time went on the archive of b-side photographs has expanded to prodigious size," Morris said. "There's thousands of them. And many of them are really terrific photographs in their own right. And in some of the instances where Elsa is able to make a comparison the b-side photographs are better, clearly better!"
The fact that a b-side photo may be more interesting, more revealing, than an a-side says something about the client initially choosing between the two. But it says something deeper about photography itself -- that what we perceive when we look at a picture changes over time. This is most true of course if the person who took the photograph is a superb artist, like Dorfman.
"I remember telling her I didn't like one of her photographs -- very early on [in our friendship]. Glad she still talks to us. And Elsa said, 'Wait 10 years and look at it again,'" Morris recalled. "And of course she's right. I've looked at photographs [of hers] now over 10, 15, 20, 25 years and each of them becomes more and more important over the years. Can't really completely explain it. But it's as if those people in the photographs are still with us. She talks about that. And, goddamn it, it's true. Amazing. It's actually true."
One of the most shocking -- heretical? -- things Dorfman says about her work is that she attempts to capture surfaces -- what her subjects choose to present to her.
"I am interested in the surface appearance of the person. I don't try to strip off their so-called veneer. In fact, it is the veneer that attracts and charms me," Dorfman has written. "I don't try to reveal or to probe. I certainly don't try to capture souls. (If any soul is revealed, it's mine.)"
The film includes a vintage television interview with Dorfman who is asked whether she thinks the camera tells the truth. "Absolutely not," she replies. "That's what I love about it. It's not real at all."
There is no truth in photography. In that respect I agree completely with Elsa.
I asked Morris whether he thought Dorfman's photographs "tell the truth."
"Truth for me is a linguistic notion," he responded. "You ask yourself, 'Is this sentence true or false?' -- Not a question that Donald Trump would ask himself because everything for him is true regardless of anything anyone else might think. Is this sentence true? It's a linguistic idea. To me, to ask if a photograph is true makes no sense. Really makes no sense. You could put together various sentences about, 'Is it true that that person really was standing in such and such a place when the photograph was taken?' But I'm not sure I understand what it means to say a photograph is true or false. And this idea that if you obey certain rules that you can be guaranteed the photograph is true strikes me as nonsense talk. It's this 'direct cinema' idea -- still very, very prevalent in documentary photograph as well as in still photography, in journalism -- that if you touch anything in a scene then it somehow is no longer truthful. And I've tried to write about that whole issue. There is no truth in photography. In that respect I agree completely with Elsa."
He continued, "So what is it that photography does? I don't know. Does it activate our dreams, our memories. Is it a mnemonic device for becoming reconnected with the past? Don't know. Don't really know."
"I know she [Elsa] is right that photographs when people die take on a really deep meaning. When I look at her photograph of my mother, for example, I have all of these feelings -- my gratitude to Elsa for having taken the photograph, congratulations to myself for dragging my mother into Elsa's studio to be photographed by Elsa, my love of my mother. And in some sense, this strange moment in time is preserved, not quite in aspic, but preserved.
"Elsa's comment, I still think about it -- she's a poet, among other things -- 'nailing down the now.' That is really what The B-Side is about more than anything, if I had to put my finger on it, is this feeling that we're trapped in time and that everything is changing around us and everything will fade and eventually disappear. And what remains? This photographer's dream of nailing down the now and, she describes it, this awareness that there is no nailing down the now because the now keeps moving ahead of us."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.