While “the B-Side” typically refers to the flip side of 7″ singles, in the new film from Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris, The B-Side refers to the work of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based photographer Elsa Dorfman. Since 1980, Dorfman has produced color portraits with a massive 20×24 large-format Polaroid camera, one of only eight in the world. She takes two photos of her subjects, who then choose which one they want to take home. Dorfman keeps the photos they don’t choose, which she calls “the B-sides,” enamored with subjects’ quirky blinks after the flash, say, or the endearing discolorations for which Polaroids had become known. When the company ceased making film in 2008, however, Dorfman’s career was at a crossroads. Would she still be able to get large-format film? The answer turned out to be yes, but it would prove more difficult as time went on.
Morris has long felt the photographer’s life warranted a documentary. He has been making documentaries since Gates of Heaven, his 1978 debut work about a pet cemetery in California, which was named one of Roger Ebert’s 10 Best Films of All Time. In addition to his Oscar (The Fog of War), he also has to his name an Emmy, a Grand Jury Prize from Sundance, two New York Times bestselling books, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation, and countless other accolades. Now, his focus turns to Dorfman, whom he’s known Dorfman for nearly 30 years.
“I had spent an afternoon with her in her garage looking at Polaroids,” Morris told me. “Elsa had opened up these drawers in these flat files in her garage, [would] take out a Polaroid, and tell a story. And I thought, this is a movie.”
Morris was also fascinated with the lack of pretension in Dorfman’s work, the way her subjects—families, couples, friends, and solos—sit simply in front of the camera, and the way Elsa is only interested in their surfaces against the starkness of her clean, often white background. “Her stuff is strangely enough about family and creating community without ever being intentionally so,” Morris said, “There she is restricted more or less to Cambridge, Massachusetts or some part of greater Boston and yet there’s a power that emerges.”
With The B-Side, Morris invites audiences to experience this power in Dorfman’s work and look at her life so far. Dorfman started in photography by taking black and white pictures of her friends—which included Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso, among many others—and selling the prints from a shopping cart in Boston. Many of these images were collected in a 1974 book called Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal. In 1980, however, Dorfman took on the large-format color Polaroid, and has been working with the camera ever since. Dorfman’s work is also part of collections at the National Portrait Gallery, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and more.
Despite her accolades, Dorfman has remained on the fringes of American photography, and Morris feels she has never quite been given the credit she deserves. “Her work in total was a kind of rejected art [and] no one really saw the value of it,” Morris said. Even the Polaroid company never invited her to use their large-format camera for free, and when the company went bankrupt she had to buy it from them. But for Morris, Dorfman’s talent was clear from the beginning. “I always thought that there was something very simple and profound about her work,” he said. “I’m just grateful to be able to share her with a much larger group of people.”