Errol Morris' The B-Side: When a business decision ends an art form

By Jim Slotek

Imagine being a renowned artist, and your career comes to an abrupt end – not because of infirmity, but because the medium you work with no longer exists.

That’s the tale that comes through in The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. It’s a documentary by no less a lion than Errol Morris, about a woman who could be called the Annie Leibovitz of Polaroids (with the drop-off of profundity that suggests).

Elsa Dorfman and the ultimate Polaroid camera

Elsa Dorfman and the ultimate Polaroid camera

Oil paint exists because of portraiture. No technology ever threatened its existence, and no single company ever owned the right to make it.

But Polaroid stopped making film for its classic instant cameras in 2009 (Fujifilm continued to make compatible film for many models until last year). As for Elsa Dorfman, she spent most of her career capturing images of the likes of Bob Dylan, Anais Nin, Joni Mitchell, W.H. Auden and her close friend Allen Ginsberg on a high-end wide-film prototype developed by Polaroid in the ‘70s. She was one of only a few people the company allowed to use it, in what amounted to a 30-year “beta test.”

Effectively an elegy for an 80-year-old artist who was forced into retirement, Morris drops his usual seriousness and intensity for a folksy walk through Dorfman’s Cambridge, Massachusetts studio, where we see her life, loved ones and clients (both famous and simply well-heeled) primarily in Polaroid (along with some black-and-whites that were her medium in her 20s).

It’s a sweet story of a “nice Jewish girl” who landed a job in New York City at Grove Press, where she fell into the company of Beat writers like Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Though she finally fled New York’s lifestyle for Cambridge, her friendships and reputation endured. By the 2000s, an Elsa Dorfman portrait cost $5,000 a sitting.

There’s very little overtly “artsy” about Dorfman, even though she could be considered one of the last survivors of the Beats. It could speak in a McLuhan-esque way to the nature of her medium, but she never claims to capture anyone’s soul in her photos, only surfaces. There is a cheeriness to her work that probably made her a tough sell in the cooler corners of the art world (she’s never been attached to a gallery).

I would differ about her self-assessment, though, based on the B-Sides of the title. It’s Dorfman’s longtime practice to take two poster-sized Polaroids of each subject, offering them their choice and keeping the other (the B Side). Typically, these are unguarded and unposed and, to my mind, rich with suggested story.

There are aspects to Dorfman’s career that are barely touched on in Morris’s movie – particularly her work in the fights against AIDS and cancer (she was featured in a 1999 doc called No Hair Day, capturing images of breast cancer patients).

But Morris clearly adores the subject of his doc, and the wistfulness is a nice change from the gravity he normally embraces.

The B-Side: Else Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Opens June 23 in Toronto (Hot Docs) and Vancouver. July 7 in Montreal and throughout the summer in other cities.

Jim Slotek

Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.