Though his filmography often consists of long interviews with hideous men, documentarian Errol Morris is nearly unequaled in his ability to inject empathy, or at least basic humanity, into explorations of figures as difficult as Holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter or war architects Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld. Yet it’s hard to remember the last time the filmmaker tackled a subject he obviously adores as much as the recently-retired photographer Elsa Dorfman. As its title suggests, “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” is something of a minor work compared to the knottier, weightier material of Morris’ recent films. But discount it at your peril: This portrait of the artist as an old woman is a gentle-hearted gem, as profoundly subtle as it is subtly profound.
Even though the film spends most of its 76-minute running time in a cramped photo archive, following the septuagenarian Dorfman as she leafs through her filing cabinets and explains how various snapshots came to be, knowledge of photography — or even a particular interest in it — is hardly a prerequisite. After all, Dorfman herself was never a natural fit for austere institutes and art galleries. A self-described “nice Jewish girl” from Massachusetts, Dorfman was 28 before she ever picked up a camera, and she only began to creatively blossom when she left the art-damaged bustle of New York for a quieter life back home in Cambridge.
All the same, her post-collegiate spell in New York was eventful: As a secretary at Grove Press, she managed to meet a host of Beat generation literary characters, in particular Allen Ginsberg. The great poet became a lifelong friend and one of Dorfman’s most frequent photo subjects, which in the 1960s and ‘70s grew to include such notables as Bob Dylan, Anais Nin, Jorge Luis Borges, and Joni Mitchell. As wonderful as those black-and-white shots are, it wasn’t until the 1980s that she embraced her most famous piece of equipment: the giant, stationary Polaroid 20×24 camera, on which she took thousands of oversized color portraits, shooting famous artists, herself, and ordinary families alike.
(Whenever she shot paying customers, she would take two portraits, allow her customers to pick their favorite, and keep the rejects for herself. These “b-sides” — each evocatively imperfect in its own way — make up a huge chunk of her archive.)
Morris’ camera follows Dorfman as she tinkers around her studio, cutting away to linger long on photos and contact sheets. The conversation is casual, and she makes for excellent company: a modest, good-humored, unpretentious craftswoman who nonetheless isn’t afraid to praise her own work when she knows it’s worthy of it. Morris is obviously enraptured, staying silent for the first third of the film until suddenly blurting out, “Oh Elsa! I’ve never seen these!” at the reveal of a new batch of photos.
Dorfman does seem slightly miffed that she was never the toast of the fine-art world, though she also seems to understand why she might not have fit in. As she explains, the primary theme of her work is happiness — she preferred not to shoot people when they were sad — and she scoffs at the idea that her photography ought to capture the soul of the sitter. In one endearing exchange, she tells Morris that a particular self-portrait is unusual because it is one of her only pictures to feature a red backdrop. “Why the red?” he asks. “Because it was there,” she shrugs.
Of course, it would be a mistake to take Dorfman’s interest in surfaces for a lack of depth. We may never see into his soul, but after viewing several dozen photos Dorfman shot of her husband throughout the decades, he becomes a fully-rounded character in the film despite never speaking in it. Dorfman’s thoughts on the decline and fall of Polaroid, and her worries about what will become of her archives now that she’s no longer a working photographer, can’t help but double as quietly moving meditations on mortality.
Late in the film, Dorfman uncovers two nearly life-sized portraits (one clothed, one nude) that she shot of Ginsberg shortly before his death. She pauses for a moment to take it in. “Does seeing this bring Allen back?” Morris starts to probe. “Of course,” she exclaims immediately, once again in full cheer.