The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

2017, R, 76 min. Directed by Errol Morris.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 21, 2017

Ostensibly, this is a documentary profile of Elsa Dorfman, a photographer known for her large-format Polaroid portraits. But because this is an Errol Morris film, The B-Side is about many other things as well, not least of them Morris himself, who is also a portraitist with a camera, except he works with motion pictures instead of still images like Dorfman. Throughout his career, Morris has probed what makes people tick, whether they be patrons of pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), cosmological thinkers like Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time), an inventor of execution devices (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.), the controversial former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, which received an Academy Award), the even more controversial Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (The Unknown Known), the torturers of Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), and a former beauty queen turned lurid kidnapper (Tabloid), among others. Morris’ interest in Dorfman often seems like self-exploration, a means of finding answers to questions about such things as the nature and meaning of image creation rather than a singular interest in Dorfman’s life and career. Instead of coming across as solipsistic, Morris’ personal stake in this film deepens our interest in it.

Elsa Dorfman, a photographer since the Sixties, is an engaging figure, talking with Morris in her thick Boston accent from within her office and darkroom, all the while pulling out photos from her flat files to illustrate her points. Many photos are of Allen Ginsberg, who was a lifelong friend she first became acquainted with while working at Grove Press in New York, as well as writers she came to know while working at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Boston, along with regional musicians such as Jonathan Richman (who has two songs featured in the movie). Although the film doesn’t dwell on individual photographs, these images of cultural luminaries will be of interest to students of the period. Dorfman describes how she fell into her photography career, and how she developed as a commercial portraitist, both as a resourceful tactic to meet the expenses of the large-format equipment and materials and as a practical avenue for someone who didn’t have the ambition of becoming a gallery artist. Dorfman’s story is also one of female nonconformity. As she comments on the path she took: “I was just one lucky little Jewish girl – who escaped by the skin of her teeth.”

Morris’ film also functions as an elegy for Polaroid and the large-format imagery that has now ceased to exist as a result of the company’s demise. The cameras and the film stock are no longer produced, forcing Dorfman and other artists into reluctant retirements. Yet for all this documentary’s intriguing intellectual tentacles, it still seems to lack a central thesis or governing principle. The B-Side is not one of Errol Morris’ finely focused film essays; instead, you may feel a desire to “shake it like a Polaroid picture” in an effort to encourage its development.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Errol Morris
Errol Morris' Badassedness To Be Made Official
Errol Morris' Badassedness To Be Made Official
Legendary documentarian will be fêted at Fantastic Fest 2013

Kimberley Jones, Sept. 9, 2013

More Errol Morris Films
American Dharma
Steve Bannon dissected by the great Errol Morris

Richard Whittaker, Nov. 15, 2019

Errol Morris finds a real character for his documentary subject this time – scandal magnet Joyce McKinney, who allegedly abducted and raped a Mormon missionary.

Kimberley Jones, Aug. 5, 2011

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
Stunning French tale of a woman seeking an abortion is depressingly timely

May 13, 2022

From the Archives: Organizing Outside the System – Deborah Shaffer and <i>The Wobblies</i>
From the Archives: Organizing Outside the System – Deborah Shaffer and The Wobblies
Our 1981 interview with the filmmaker behind the classic doc

May 3, 2022


The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, Errol Morris

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle