The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (2016)


(director: Errol Morris; cinematographer: Nathan Allen Swingle; editor: Steven Hathaway; music: Paul Leonard-Morgan; cast: Allen Ginsberg, Elsa Dorfman; Runtime: 76; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Steven Hathaway; Neon; 2016)

A warm-hearted documentary about a down-to-earth photographer who used Polaroids to shoot her portraits.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A warm-hearted documentary about a down-to-earth photographer who used Polaroids to shoot her portraits. Provocateur filmmaker Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”/”The Fog of War”), arguably the best documentarian ever, interviews Elsa Dorfman, mostly in her cramped Cambridge, Massachusetts studio, and the modest 80-year-old gives him a tour of her archives and gladly tells about her life as a photographer as she’s about to retire after working in the medium for thirty-five since 1980.

Elsa came to NYC in 1959 and was employed by the radical Grove Press as a secretary and later became an elementary school teacher in Concord, Mass, and then worked a job in an M.I.T. lab where a colleague gave her a camera and encouragement to use it. The nice Jewish girl by accident eventually became a photographer (with no training) and after befriending Allen Ginsberg and hanging around with poets in a book store that had readings, where she photographed many noted poets including W. H. Auden. Maybe her most celebrated photo is with Allen and a young guitar-strumming Bob Dylan goofing around over a song. Later on she took a photo of Allen in the nude, which should appeal to anyone wanting to see the beat poet and peace activist in the buff. Elsa’s recognition in the field was never great, but she was one of only five who were able to rent out one of the large-scale Polaroid portrait cameras introduced (Polaroid Land 20×24 camera), and supported herself by receiving payments for her portraits of families on the large Polaroid of families. In additition she sold those portraits of celebrated poets, rockers and the Harvard crowd from a shopping cart in Harvard Square. Through the years she took portraits of her son and lawyer husband. I was immensely touched by the talent, candor and quiet wisdom of Elsa, who celebrated her art with the sensitivity only a true artist has for her medium. The title is derived from Elsa taking 2 portrait photos of the family she was commissioned for, and the family would take the one they liked best and she would get the reject. Elsa kept the rejects in a file cabinet in her studio and called it the B-side.


REVIEWED ON 12/27/2017 GRADE: A-   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/