Over the course of his career, director Errol Morris has made documentaries that traverse the territory of the bizarre or politically controversial. His cinematic portraits feature a blunt honesty that Morris is able to coax from his subjects, ranging from for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to tabloid sensation Joyce McKinney. For the latest film by Errol Morris, the director softens his touch with The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. The film is just as honest as his previous works but with a warmer feel than he’s ever committed to the screen in his loving portrait of a different kind of portrait photographer.
Elsa Dorfman grew up in Massachusetts as part of a nice Jewish family. In her youth, she moved to New York City and began working at a publishing house where a lot of prominent Beatnik writers were constantly going in and out of the office. Dorfman would eventually befriend legendary poet Allen Ginsberg and the two would remain friends until his death in 1997. It was later in life that Dorfman would take up photography, snapping self portraits, photos of visitors at her home, and occasionally snapping pictures at concerts. In 1974 she would publish Elsa’s Housebook – A Woman’s Photojournal, which gave her some recognition for her photography. One of her most famous photographs is of Ginsberg and Bob Dylan backstage at a concert in 1975, and Dorfman would soon start selling prints around Cambridge, Mass from a tiny cart she’d wheel around.
It’s much later that Elsa Dorfman would discover what would become her signature format for photography with the advent of technology created by Polaroid. Using a massive 20×24 camera, Dorfman was able to make instantaneous portraits that were large in scale and fine in their detail. She would set up a studio and take these portraits of families or individuals.
The pictures featured in the film from Dorfman’s archives is where the film gets its name, The B-Side. Dorfman would take two pictures of her subjects and allow the subject to choose which one they wanted while she’d keep the reject. Whereas most filmmakers would get wrapped up in the notion of celebrity with Elsa’ long-lasting friendship with Allen Ginsberg, Morris doesn’t do that here. Yes, Ginsberg is a supporting player in this examination in the life and work of Elsa Dorfman, but Morris really seems fascinated by these moments in time captured and the images that were left behind. It’s also easy to get the sense that Morris is extremely fascinated by the errors that sometimes occur in the process. Whether rejects or errors, The B-Side gives a lengthy glimpse into the images that became Elsa Dorfman’s life’s work.
As with many of Morris’ films, The B-Side is also quite funny. Elsa Dorfman is a character and she delivers amusing anecdotes in her unmistakable Boston accent. Sometimes the humor on display is a little more subdued, such as when Dorfman is having some of her larger portraits boxed up and the movers take them through her husband’s office and the attorney doesn’t blink, flinch, or remotely move as the framed portraits are lugged through his workspace. Morris also flavors The B-Side with archival footage from Dorfman’s old television interviews and internal promotional films from Polaroid. Even in a quieter film on a quieter subject, the documentarian is able to liven up the material simply through his filmmaking acumen.
Under the surface of The B-Side lies a somewhat tragic story of an artist who must reckon with the fact that the tools required for her work will no long be available in the digital age, with Polaroid ceasing production of its film stock. And yet Elsa Dorfman doesn’t give into despair, retiring gracefully from her life’s work and left to ponder what will become of her photos when she passes away. Here you see the gentler approach of Errol Morris, delicately talking with Dorfman about these big questions that are swirling around her mind but with a positivity that aims to assuage any sense of despair that she might be feeling.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is a minor work by Errol Morris, but it’s still the work of a master filmmaker. It’s a documentary that is as much about the art form as the artist itself, and there’s a real warmth that exudes from Morris’ film that presents a new side to the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Running at a breezy 76 minutes, The B-Side doesn’t waste a frame of its loving portrait of Elsa Dorfman and her unique portraits.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography
A minor work by Errol Morris but still the work of a master documentarian, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography examines the life and art of unique photographer who was a longtime friend of Allen Ginsberg and a trailblazer in Polaroid photography.