Nestled in the title of Errol Morris’s The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is a resonant allusion to the torturous subjectivity of art. Late in the documentary, the photographer Elsa Dorfman refers to the B-sides she keeps on file, which are the portraits people have declined to purchase. Dorfman’s clearly wounded by this facet of her process, though her clients are often simply choosing another picture instead, as she creates two portraits so as to offer her patrons flexibility. Which is to say that Dorfman is discerning rejection where there isn’t any, as she could just as easily and truthfully emphasize the acceptance of the portrait that her subjects take home.
Dorfman doesn’t highlight her victories, however, as she belongs to the long tradition of artists who’re eaten up with doubt over the legitimacy of their talent and vocation. The notion of B-sides haunts Morris’s documentary in other related fashions, pertaining to class and an insidiously strident issue of image that governs America and Europe’s relationship with art. Dorfman’s B-sides are often technically flawed, either by inadvertent gestures of the subjects or by camera gaffes that might flood the image with yellow light. These mishaps often give the images a textural vitality that refutes perfection, reveling in the spontaneous mess of day-to-day life. People, conditioned to yearn for perfection, find these B-sides easy to bypass.
The B-sides metaphor has another implication as well: Dorfman doesn’t offer her patrons sex appeal, as she resembles a working-class egghead who’s more likely to be a high school biology teacher than the hero of a film, and she’s given to defining her art in brutally funny and pragmatic terms that resist the airs of cultivated mystery that we often crave of the artiste, which has, perhaps, kept her from enjoying the pronouncedly bohemian stardom of more glamorous personalities. Dorfman is, herself, a B-side of the art world.
Even Dorfman’s medium suggests a rejection of pretension: the Polaroid snapshot, once a staple of suburban households, which she often renders in life-size proportions with a series of rare and gigantic cameras. Dorfman’s subjects correspond with this embrace of democratic quotidian, as she mostly photographs everyday people in their work or street clothes, posing them to face the camera with a poignant directness that implicitly says, “This is who I am.” The poignancy stems from the sense we get of the subjects’ fulfillment under Dorfman’s lens, as they’re afforded transcendence via the photographer’s casual empathy. For instance, Dorfman shoots her husband Harvey’s back hair with a rapture that speaks of the sensual communion of commitment. Only lovers see people this composedly un-composed.
Usually playful and flamboyantly slick, Morris embraces a comparatively pared-down aesthetic that corresponds with the unadorned intimacy of Dorfman’s art, as The B-Side is entirely fixated on Dorfman as she discusses her life, usually from the vantage point of her darkroom, while showing us her pictures. Not all of Dorfman’s life is decidedly unglamorous, as she had a decades-long friendship with Allen Ginsberg (whom she snapped countless times, often profoundly), and a stint haunting the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But Dorfman tells us that she often felt as if she couldn’t quite cut it in the art world, as she was always scrounging for resources and was rarely among the few artists who won grants, resources, and galleries. Dorfman tells us that she’s a poor networker—which is more important to artistic success than actual art—and we believe her self-characterization, as she has the energy of an imaginative introvert who’s in their element when among the tactility of the artifacts of their interior world.
Dorfman coaxes an unusual and bracing tenderness out of Morris, as he doesn’t turn her into another of his quasi-satirical caricatures. Dorfman talks of an “inner reservoir” that takes over during creation, as if she’s bearing witness to her art’s ascendance, relinquishing direct mental control in a cathartic act of surrender. Dorfman claims that she doesn’t seek to capture her subjects’ “true selves,” but rather simply their appearances, which is ironic given the personal nature of her portraits, which are so intensely specific they reveal the outer and inner selves to be indistinguishable. Morris achieves a similar inner/outer unity in The B-Side, filming Dorfman and her work with a rapt attentiveness that maps the nostalgic and regretful stirrings of her soul.