The portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, now 80 and retired, strongly resembles the sweet old lady in front of you at the supermarket check-out line, the one who reminds you of your Nana. Like your Nana, the more she talks, the more a rich and unexpected tapestry of the past emerges, a correction to the solipsism of youth. Dorfman’s past, however, is documented and on hand in dozens of photographic flat files in her Cambridge studio, and “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” finds her in a sharing mood.
The resulting documentary is a deceptively mild-mannered visit with an artist-practitioner. Poky even at 76 minutes, it’s a minor entry in the filmography of its director, Dorfman’s friend and fellow Cantabridgian Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line,” “The Fog of War”). But there’s local relevance here — sometimes it seems as if half the Greater Boston area has sat for one of Dorfman’s large-format Polaroids over the decades — and also some chewy, if oblique, insights into her methods and her medium.
A Dorfman portrait is instantly recognizable: A 20-by-24-inch snapshot of, most often, a family grouping against a spare white background, with tell-tale Polaroid ink-stripes on the borders (Dorfman calls them “tire tracks”) and a caption scribbled at the bottom in india ink. They’ve rarely graced commercial galleries — “I never had the personality” for that game, she says — but instead hang in people’s living rooms and hallways. They’re brightly lit, casual, extremely pleasant to look at. “I’m really interested in the surfaces of people,” Dorfman confesses at one point. “I’m not very interested in capturing their souls.”
Morris spends much of the documentary filling in Dorfman’s early years, when she was present at an unusual number of cultural bonfires. After graduating from Tufts, she hung out at Cambridge’s Grolier Poetry Book Shop and took photos for the Antioch Review; in New York City, she worked for Grove Press during the period of the publisher’s celebrated obscenity trials. She took pictures of W.H. Auden, Jorge Luis Borges, Anne Sexton, Anais Nin, and Bob Dylan. She photographed and befriended the poet Allen Ginsberg, a puckishly grave figure to whom “The B-Side” returns again and again.
The self-portraits Dorfman took during this era, including some nudes, reveal a self-effacing woman — “just one lucky little Jewish girl who escaped by the skin of her teeth” — pondering what it means to be a woman, a wife, a mother, and an artist. These sections are unexpectedly touching, yet they only go so far; unlike Ginsberg, Dorfman isn’t a sharer or a showoff. The early work is homely in the original sense of the word: unadorned and unaffected, rooted in domesticity while gently pushing against it.
With Edwin H. Land’s 1976 introduction of the 20-by-24-inch Polaroid format — we see a promo clip of Land in his Cambridge factory, promising an “ultimate camera” that will become “a part of the evolving human story” — Dorfman found her medium and pursued it to success and a satisfied client base of thousands. Getting your family Dorfman-ed became in some senses the New England equivalent of commissioning a Warhol silkscreen of yourself: a recognized aesthetic frame to hang around one’s life.
Is that art, or does it just look like it? An acquaintance of mine, herself a visual artist of no small talent, watched “The B-Side” in growing exasperation, uncharmed by what she saw as Dorfman’s self-effacing banality and unconvinced by the work, which she felt anyone could do. Put a bunch of well-to-do people in a studio and push a button — where’s the skill in that?
I’d beg to differ, but the argument’s worth having and in fact is the strongest reason to see “The B-Side,” aside from the pleasure of spending time with a very nice person who resists conventional notions of artistic behavior. Refreshingly, Dorfman has few illusions about her medium. Asked in a 1980s TV interview whether she thinks the camera “tells the truth” about people, she snaps “Absolutely not!”
Instead, she seems to instinctively understand photography’s knack for simply snagging a moment, and she has gradually extended that moment — that nanosecond of seeing — from herself to her family to a community at large. A Dorfman portrait may be the closest one can come to an embrace from your Nana: It’s fast and fierce and loving and uncritical, and the perfume lingers long after the moment is gone.
THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY
Directed by Errol Morris. At Kendall Square. 76 minutes. R (graphic nude images, brief language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.