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The 2017 Sidewalk Film Festival reviews: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

| August 29, 2017

Over the weekend of August 25 through 27, I had the pleasure of attending The 19th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival in my home of Birmingham, Alabama.  Over the next two weeks I’ll be taking an intimate look at each of the 11 films that I saw.

If we take Elsa Dorfman completely at first glance, then she might seem like someone’s good-hearted Jewish aunt.  She always has pictures to show you, and with that, always has a story to tell.  You would imagine that visiting her home, a tour of her portrait studio might be accompanied with warm tea and possibly a hug at the ingress and then again at the egress.

She has that kind of countenance, a cozy old soul who has just recently crossed the age line into her 80s and has a lifetime of stories bottled up inside of her.  In that way, she is no different from any other octogenarian except that much of her life has been spent behind her Polaroid Camera.  For more than 60 years, Dorfman worked as a professional photographer and became noted for her use of Polaroid’s large 20 x 24 camera that could produce large-format instant pictures that seemed so lifelike that you would swear the subject was in the room with you.  When she shows the photographs to us, we feel that we are getting a piece of her life; she seems to have an emotion for every picture she displays.  But, of course, showing us her work is only half of the story.

If you know that work of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris then you know that his films are never about only one thing.  They seem to start in one direction and then shift focus and become something else.  He’s not interested in narratives; he’s interested in people, odd people, eccentrics who seem to offer a skewed version of the world.  I remember his early film Gates of Heaven about the owners of a California pet cemetery; and Mr. Death, about a man who designs electric chairs and lethal injection chambers.  And there have been portraits of Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld.  His subjects are never surface only, there’s always something else going on.

Elsa is no different.  Heavy-set and frumpy with a warms smile through which comes a charming Boston accent, we sense that she has wisdom but she is not a sage.  Even in her 80s, we sense that she knows she’s still discovering things.  Her life and her career are not mutually exclusive, but everything that she has done has become a part of her.   She photographed famous people as well as non-famous people.  Among the celebrities were a who’s who of famous faces of the 60s including Anais Nin, Audre Lorde, Anne Sexton, Jorge Luis Borges, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and musicians Jonathan Richman,  Steven Tyler and Bob Dylan.  She never goes into much detail over what she thought of these people save for Ginsberg who became a very dear friend.  There’s a heartbreaking moment in the movie when she listens to a pair of answering machine messages from him that were recorded just hours before his death.

What is tricky about the film is how it begins impersonal and slowly but surely becomes very personal.  We see photos of her parents, now gone.  We see pictures of her husband and son, always accompanied by an anecdote.  On the bottom of the photos she made notes on the day she took them.  The self-portrait that she took on the day of her father’s death brought a tear to my eye.

Elsa has kept every picture that she ever took, even those with flaws, seeing the imperfections as giving the work a bit of character.  Whenever she took a photo of someone, she always took two, and admits that she prefers the ‘B’ print because it exposes the imperfections of life.  This is her outlook on life in general, and what ultimately comes of her story is a woman whose photographs have become the caverns of her memory.  These are her life, these are her experiences.  And what surprises us even more is that her recent retirement didn’t come from the onset of age, but rather from Polaroid’s recent decision to discontinue the instant camera which has been phased out in the digital age – her brilliant career has been eclipsed by technology.  She could make the switch, but why?  Why change from something that has shaped her whole life, her whole personality, and even better, her whole outlook on life.  There’s no replacement for that.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2017) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary