Over the course of her career, the eccentric American portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman has photographed many prominent cultural figures, including Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Andrea Dworkin, and Steven Tyler. But more often the subjects of her camera are neighbors, friends, dogs, even her own self. Her project is the immortalization of the everyday and her trademark is a large-format instant Polaroid, which every day inches closer toward going the way of the dodo. Now she and her work are the subject of Errol Morris’s The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, a meditation on changing times, mediums, and identity. Last year, following the film’s world-premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker sat down to speak with me about Dorfman, her fixation with self-portraits, and what makes them kindred spirits.
How many projects are you on at the moment?
Probably four, five, six. Something like that.
Twitter proves that you’re a filmaholic. In August, you tweeted: “CAUTIONARY TALE. If you’re not careful, you too could find that you’re making a new film.
Well, maybe it is a disease?
Is it almost a physical urge?
Yes. Artists need to make art. That’s what they do. Like bees and honey.
Is this sort of artistic schizophrenia something you feel comfortable with?
Thinking about a lot of things at the same time helps me. It’s possible. It’s true. I’ve been writing books. I just finished one and I’m starting on another. So that’s going on too. And I’m still doing commercials.
And there’s this section of your website called “weirdness.”
It’s self-explanatory. My dog, singing when I’m cello-playing. It’s pretty weird.
What’s it about weirdness that appeals to you?
I like stories which are unexpected, are strange. Maybe even perverse.
So everything this film is not. Do you remember what was the starting point for this particular film?
The beginning was my relationship with Elsa. I’ve known her for a long time, over 25 years. I thought about making this film ever since she started showing me photographs in her garage—a very simple film, with Elsa taking out her photographs and talking about them. Finally I got around to doing it.
We’re in the middle of a massive project for Netflix and we took some time, and we shot it very quickly. In my frustration over not having finished a film in a while, I thought: “I’ll do this.”
How do you go from making a film about, say, humankind and time, and then go back to Elsa’s studio?
The themes couldn’t be bigger than the ones in the film: time, memory, love, friendship. It’s not as though Elsa was secretary of defense and involved in a major world war, but the themes are big. Maybe in a smaller setting, but big.
There’s that fantastic moment in the film when Elsa says that, for her, taking self-portraits while working is a way of making her protagonists feel more comfortable with themselves. Is this something you can relate to?
I relate to her work on many levels. Part of her work is self-presentation, a kind of relationship between the people she photographs and her. They’re presenting themselves to her camera and it’s very much a collaboration. What I do is very much a collaboration too. So, yeah, we’re kindred spirits. But what Elsa, if my memory serves me correctly, is saying is that she took pictures of herself because, if she could take pictures of herself and accept herself, it would make it possible for her to take pictures of others. Her archive is filled with hundreds of pictures of herself and her family. And, of course, thousands of her friends and the people, you know, she’s met along the way. That’s different for me. I’ve never been into self-portraits, not something what I’ve done. But I love Elsa’s self-portraits. I think they’re fabulous.
Me too. Especially when she starts talking about time.
Do you think about how photographs are a way of preserving the stillness of time and, at the same time, proof that time is relentless in its passing?
I would say it’s about the relentless nature of time and its oddity in photography. Oliver Wendell Holmes called it in the 19th century the “mirror with a memory.” And that’s not exactly true. It becomes a memory, a way of reconnecting yourself with the past and with people. In many instances, as Elsa points out, ones that are no longer with us. It’s her strange relationship with the photographs of Allen Ginsberg.
Is this something that also happens to you? Does collecting all those moments with people make you also more aware of when they’re gone?
It’s inevitable. I mean, I think of The Thin Blue Line and the two major characters: Randall Adams, an innocent man, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, and David Harris, who was the actual killer. They’re both dead. They’re both gone. And what remains of them is really The Thin Blue Line, the movie and my memories of my relationship with them. Still photography is very different from motion picture photography. In my house there’s a table filled with photographs of people who died, my family.