The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her ‘B-photos’

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As watching Errol Morris’ latest documentary film “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography”, which is currently available on Netflix, I came to reflect on the fact that I have never used Polaroid or any other instant camera before. Sure, I knew about those instant cameras, but, thanks to the rapid advance of digital photography, they were becoming obsolete when I began to be a bit more interested in photography during the 2000s, and now they nearly belong to the past. While occasionally feeling elegiac as recognizing the end of an era, the documentary mostly feels lightweight thanks to its bright human center, and the result is a modest but engaging work to watch on the whole.

The center of the documentary is Elsa Dorfman, a professional portrait photographer who devoted herself to her profession for many years. In the beginning, we see her in her small workshop/archive, and the documentary spends most of its running time there as watching and listening to this interesting old lady, who surely has many things to tell as looking over her old photography works.

During the 1960s, young Dorfman left her hometown Cambridge, Massachusetts for working in New York City, and she came to be employed in Grove Press, which published the works from some of notable Beat Generation writers including Allen Ginsberg. As her interest in photography was developed, she got plenty of opportunities to meet various celebrity figures ranging from Bob Dylan to Jorge Luis Borges, and we see some of their black and white photographs shot by her during that period.

After several years, Dorfman got tired of the carefree urban lifestyle surrounding her, so she returned to Cambridge and then became a school teacher, but then she became more interested in photography after one coincidental moment. As shooting more photographs, she also sold her works for herself, and she tells us a funny episode about how she got into a little trouble when she tried to sell her photographs in front of a local supermarket.

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When Polaroid 20X24 camera came out, she went for it without any hesitation, and that big instant camera soon became the center of her aesthetics. While many other photographers are interested in whatever is behind images, she mostly cares about how her subjects look on the surface in her big photographs, and that simplicity is sometimes mixed with spontaneity as shown from many of her photographs presented in the documentary. She frequently photographed not only herself but also her husband and their son, and some of those photographs look particularly interesting as we notice the presence of an electric wire between her and her Polaroid camera, which somehow brings some personality to them.

While most of notable public figures shot by her are merely glimpsed in the documentary, Morris delves a bit into Dorfman’s friendship with Ginsberg, and she talks about how close they were to each other as friends for many years. When she happened to photograph him, they decided to go further than usual, and we later see an amusing photograph which shows naked Ginsberg standing in front of the other photograph showing him fully clothed. As Dorfman is looking over her dear friend’s photograph, an old telephone message from Ginsberg during his final days is played on the soundtrack, and that makes this scene quite poignant.

The documentary also looks around numerous photographs which are ‘less special’ in comparison. Neither the documentary nor Dorfman provides any additional information or context on these photographs, but we cannot help but curious about many different people shown in these photographs, and then there comes a brief but wonderful moment showing heaps of photographs stacked together in group.

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However, they and many other photographs in Dorfman’s archive may not last that long as she frankly admits. Some of her Polaroid photographs begin to show their age despite her preservation effort, and she also points out how vulnerable Polaroid prints are in many aspects. In addition, the circumstance has become more difficult for her since Polaroid Corporation declared bankruptcy in 2001, and its eventual decision to stop production was one of the main reasons why she recently decided to retire.

While understandably feeling bitter about her era coming to the end, Dorfman remains optimistic nonetheless, and Morris thoughtfully presents her on the screen while indirectly showing affection and respect at times. Although he seems to try a little too hard as reflected by the frequent utilization of skewed camera angles, Dorfman’s colorful personality steadily carries the documentary even when it looks like aimlessly flowing from one point to another, and she is certainly someone to whom you can listen for hours.

Compared to Morris’ notable works including “Gates of Heaven” (1978), “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” (1997), “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (2003), and “The Unknown Known” (2013), “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” feels like a minor work, but it is an admirable work at least. Although I often felt impatient during my viewing, it provides enough good moments during its short running time (75 minutes), and I certainly enjoyed watching Dorfman at work. Her time is being over indeed, but she has surely been happy with her work, hasn’t she?

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