“Many of my portraits are about affection,” Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman once wrote. With her mammoth, 200-pound Polaroid 20×24 camera—one of only five or six built—she made commissioned studio portraits of couples, family bonds, kids growing up. She’d tell adolescents: “This portrait is a message to yourself at 40. Look to the person you want to become.”
Dorfman, who was 83, died May 30 at her Cambridge home from kidney failure, according to The Boston Globe and WBUR. Her story had been told in a 2017 documentary called “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” by her friend, the Cambridge filmmaker Errol Morris.
“I want my people to look like they just stepped off the sidewalk into my studio, like they just dropped in. Familiar clothes, favorite clothes provide the gesture AND the characteristic habit,” Dorfman wrote. “… I am completely dependent on how much of themselves they are willing or able to bring forth (and more to the point, how much is there. In a good portrait, somebody has to be home.) My favorite subjects are people who accept themselves. They can stand in front of my huge camera and let themselves be, unchanged, just as they are, in a natural state.”
An exhibition of her self-portraits, “Elsa Dorfman: Me and My Camera,” was scheduled to be on view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts from Feb. 8 to June 21, but closed in March as the museum shuttered to stem the spread of coronavirus.
“Being comfortable with the camera on myself affected how I felt in taking pictures of others,” the museum quoted her saying. “I really had in my mind that this was helping me, in some magical way, to take portraits, because people would sense I did it to myself, too.”
Dorfman was born April 26, 1937, in Cambridge, and grew up in Roxbury and Newton. Wishing to be a writer, in 1959, after graduating Tufts University, she landed a job as a secretary at Grove Press in New York City. She typed letters from the managing editor to Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Jasper Johns and organized readings by poets Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley.
“I was a handmaiden and I considered it a more than adequate role,” she wrote. “The thought that I was leading a vicariously creative life by helping these men never occurred to me.”
After a year, Dorfman returned to Boston, continued arranging poetry readings, studied elementary education at Boston College, taught fifth-grade for a year at a Concord public school, and worked in the science department at Education Development Center in Waltham—including camera and darkroom work.
So she became a photographer—notably of poet friends Ginsberg, Creeley, Olson and others who were becoming the literary icons of the period. She sold her prints from a grocery cart in Harvard Square—while also pursuing editing and writing on the side to pay her bills. In 1976, she married civil-liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate, whom she’d met in 1967.
Somewhere in there she saw the lush prints that photographers were producing with Polaroid’s rare 20×24 camera. Arranging a chance to use the device became her life’s mission.
In February 1980, she convinced Polaroid to subsidize a portrait session with her friends Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky—the couple was staying with her while in town to give a poetry reading. She was used to snapping away with 35mm film, not the sparing process most adopted for the expensive giant Polaroid. She shot some 30 photos—including several nudes of Ginsberg and Orlovsky. “My first self-portrait was during that session, too,” she wrote. “I was hooked.”
So Dorfman rented time on the 20×24 Polaroid camera housed at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. But restrictions on scheduling (no weekends), no pets allowed, and the hassle of set up, prompted her to seek a big Polaroid camera of her own. In 1987, she arranged with Polaroid to lease one of the large format cameras in a rented, two-room, basement studio in an office building along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.
“Thus I became the only photographer to have a Polaroid 20×24 in her studio,” Dorfman wrote.
She set about learning the camera’s workings. “I went through two cases of film, almost eighty exposures, and made every mistake possible before I got a feel for the rhythm of the rollers and the timing of the motor,” she wrote. “I began to understand that the colored ‘fringe’ at the top of the image was made by the pod splitting open, that the black bar at the top and bottom of the image was from the rollers, that the chemicals at the bottom of the image were affected by how I peeled apart the image. I learned little tricks of peeling apart and little tricks of timing. I got used to thinking of vertical images (the camera can’t work on the horizontal because of the rollers). I learned to use filters to regulate the color of the film. I made notes on the floor of my studio so that I would know the right lens setting for different distances from my subjects.”
Dorfman endeavored to make the subjects of her portraits comfortable. She encouraged them to bring beloved props and pets. She opened up the camera and showed clients its workings. Together they pulled down the white paper backdrop that Dorfman posed everyone before. She showed them where to stand.
“I don’t try to strip off their so-called veneer. In fact, it is the veneer that attracts and charms me. I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that no portrait can ever be more than a version of the sitter,” Dorfman wrote. “As a photographer I am not interested in pointing my camera at the pathos of other people’s lives. I don’t try to reveal or to probe. I certainly don’t try to capture souls.”
Dorfman would take just two exposures—showing clients the first photo before they made the second. Like the familiar Polaroid instant cameras, in 75 seconds, the camera produced unique 20-by-24-inch color prints. “Curiously, the portraits don’t get better, the more exposures are made,” she wrote. Then she would scrawl the people’s first names in India ink across the bottom of the print.
“What means the most to me, in all my picture-taking,” she wrote, “is when someone tells me that their favorite picture of a loved one is the picture I took of them.”
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