The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography



'It's my role in the universe to make people feel better,' Elsa Dorfman says in this lovely, gentle, touching documentary, currently streaming on Netflix. Elsa passed away this year on May 30th, leaving a body of work behind unique in its success as well as its lack of pretension. Elsa frequently stood her subjects in front of a white screen and photographed them without props. When she did, however, something magical would happen. Elsa claimed she was only interested in surfaces, but somehow, by capturing what appeared on the surface of her subject, the essence was revealed.

We learn in the film that her camera was one of only six in the world. Maybe that had something to do with the magic of her portraits. It was a Polaroid 20 x 24 inch camera (quite a beast). When Polaroid went bankrupt in 2008, production of the film the camera used ceased. Elsa bought a final year's supply and that was it. Her whole modus operandi had become a relic of the past.

I first became aware of Elsa through her pictures of Allen Ginsberg. The two of them were great friends. Elsa had worked at Grove Press in the 1950s and taken photos of other poet luminaries like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. The Ginsberg photos have endured, though, possibly because he has endured (to some extent) in the popular consciousness where the other poets haven't. Bob Dylan has certainly endured and Elsa's most famous photograph is of Dylan and Ginsberg together, backstage at the Rolling Thunder tour. In it, Dylan appears to be teaching Ginsberg how to play guitar. It's a brilliant, seductive picture, assumed by almost everybody to have been spontaneously captured.

Except Ginsberg writes in his journal the night before that such a picture would make a wonderful image. Elsa says herself in the movie that he always had one eye on posterity. He would never even send a letter without going down to Grove Press to get it photocopied first, she remembers.

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