Must watch: “The B-side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” documentary

Like everything else, art has a lifespan.

I happened across this excellent Errol Morris documentary about Elsa Dorfman’s photography on (HBO) Max. It’s worth your time (76 minutes) if you have access to the streaming service. Also available for rent from Amazon and Apple for a few bucks.

Film website | IMDB page | Watch the trailer

The world needs more documentaries like this one.

Elsa Dorfman was an American photographer best known for portraits she made with the very large, very rare Poloroid studio camera. Before the documentary, I wasn’t familiar with her or her photography, but knew about the almost-mythical cameras she used, as I experimented extensively with Poloroid back in the day. I even briefly considered attending RIT, whose photography department had close ties both Poloroid and Kodak (and one of these very large, very rare cameras).

I was struck by two connected themes: ‘impermanence’ and the purpose of a photograph.

Cover of Life Magazine from October, 1972. The image shows Dr. Edward Land using his SX-70 camera to photograph a group of children, all holding the poloroid prints. The headline reads 
"A Genius and his Magic Camera."
Edward Land – A genius and his magic camera. ©1972 Life Magazine.

Poloroid and its ‘magic’ cameras

The Poloroid company has been described by The Boston Globe as a “juggernaut of innovation”, and “the Apple of its time”, a source of unprecedented technological advances for decades. The SX-70 camera was introduced in 1972; this was the first camera that produced the prints we normally associate with Poloroids, with thick white borders and the chemical pouch at the bottom. Life Magazine featured inventor Dr. Edward Land on the cover with the headline, “A genius and his magic camera”.

Like the SX-70, the cameras Dorfman used produced an ‘instant’ print using an integrated development process, though the studio cameras were much larger: 24×30” and (unbelievably) 40×80”. These were massive machines. Only a handful of these person-sized cameras were made, permanently mounted on wheeled stands, locked away inside the few museums and universities lucky enough to get one. You get to see it in action in the film.

Losing materials and the end of an era

The company announced bankruptcy in 2001, likely due to the inability of the management to respond to the advent of digital photography. In the years before its bankruptcy, Poloroid discontinued support for the large format cameras, phasing out production of the film and chemicals Dorfman used in her work. The photographers that worked with these materials, Dorfman included, rushed to stockpile the remaining supply. She knew that after these were used up, the process would be forever lost. This eventually lead her to announce her retirement.

Fugitive images… fleeting, not long for this world.

Poloroid chemical processes are well known for their long-term instability. Especially when compared to a black-and-white silver print, Poloroids have a very short lifespan before they begin to degrade–colors shift and fade or darken, the paper yellows and cracks, visual artifacts begin to appear. And unlike other photography materials, there’s little that can be done to extend the storage life of a Poloroid photograph.

Someone off camera (presumably the filmmaker) asked Dorfman how she felt about the perishability of her prints… fugitive color… fugitive images. She seemed pained by this, and didn’t answer for several moments before responding,

“I try to deny it. In the last year, I had an awakening. Because I don’t think I had any idea how fugitive they really were.”

Still image from the documentary "B-side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography". Close-up of Elsa Dorfman, with the subtitle "... I don't think I had any idea how fugitive they really were."
Elsa Dorfman

The impermanence of the materials directly conflicts with the immediate nature of her portrait photography. She was interested in capturing people, families and individuals, as they were in the present, in the moment. For her, photography was a way to document, to preserve, to capture the now.

Yet in the film she also said, “If you’re a photographer, always nailing down the now. It doesn’t matter how much you try, the now is always racing beyond you.”

Dorfman: a photograph’s meaning

The film focuses on Dorfman’s relationship with American poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was often the subject of her portraits–she photographed him many times over the four decades of their friendship. Ginsberg died in 1997, about 15 years before the documentary was filmed.

Looking at one of the images she made of the poet, the filmmaker asked, “Does it bring Allen back, looking at these photographs?”

Still image from the documentary "B-side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography". Close-up of Elsa Dorfman, with the subtitle ".Maybe that's when photographs have their ultimate meaning."
Elsa Dorfman

“Of course it does,” she replied. “Maybe that’s when photographs have their ultimate meaning, when a person dies.”

I found it poignant that she saw photography as a way to record and preserve, yet the records themselves were dying before her eyes.

Isn’t this the way of all things. We take persistence for granted, thinking things will be here tomorrow, next month, next year. We don’t grapple with impermanence until life forces us to. Everything in life is fugitive on a long enough timeline.

So what do we do? We overcome inertia and do our work now. We prioritize our friendships. We try our best to not take our world for granted.

At best, we can only delay the inevitable. And hopefully, accept it in time with grace.

Related links:

Gorgeous Early Polaroids: A LIFE Photographer Plays With the SX-70

Cover image: Large format Poloroid camera, from a promotional image on the B-side film website.