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Remembering Elsa Dorfman Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

2 June 2020

Elsa Dorfman, the American portrait photographer known for her large-format Polaroids, has died of complications from kidney failure. She was 83.

The eldest of three daughters, she was born in Cambridge, Mass., and raised in Roxbury and Newton. She majored in French literature at Tufts University, from which she graduated in 1959, and developed literary aspirations that took her to Europe where she lived for a while in Paris.

She moved to New York City and got a job as a secretary at Grove Press, which published many Beat generation writers. There she made many life-long friends. She was as well known for her honesty and warmth then as she become famous for her Polaroids later.

But she didn't care for New York. "There was no woman that I met who wasn't an alcoholic, who wasn't promiscuous, who wasn't a druggie and was creative or had an interesting life," she said.

So she returned to Cambridge, living at her parents' house while she earned a teaching degree from Boston College.

She spent a year teaching fifth grade in Concord, which was enough to convince her that her heart wasn't into teaching.

'I couldn't do it with any other camera. Can you really say why you fell in love with someone or why your marriage lasts?'

When she enrolled in a science program for teachers, she met a few photographers and fell in love with the camera. She began taking photographs in 1965 but didn't buy a camera of her own until 1967, when she sent a check for $150 to Philip Whalen in Kyoto. With Gary Snyder, who could speak Japanese, Walen purchased a medium-format Mamiya and mailed it to her.

That's not the only acquaintance she made in 1967. She also met Harvey Silverglate, a civil rights attorney representing the defense in a drug trial. Dorfman talked about the case with him, hoping to write a book about it. At the end of their chat, Silverglate asked her to take a portrait of him and his brother to give to their mother.

They married nearly a decade later in 1976 and had a son, Isaac.

In Cambridge, she began photographing her Beat friends from Grove Press. To make ends meet she would sell the prints for $2 to $5 from a pushcart in Harvard Square. But she didn't have a vendor's license so the police would chase her away. Until Silverglate pointed out to them that photographs are not merchandise that require a peddler's license but are an intellectual product protected by the First Amendment.

In 1974 those prints became a book, Elsa's Housebook -- A Woman's Photojournal. It included portraits of Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gary Snyder, among others.

Her love affair with one of the half dozen 200 lb., 20x24 Polaroids the company built, which she leased, began in 1980 when she took a photo of herself with Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky.

She couldn't explain the attraction.

"I couldn't do it with any other camera," she said. "Can you really say why you fell in love with someone or why your marriage lasts? You can say why your marriage didn't last, but if someone asked me why did your marriage last? I don't know I could never put my finger on it."

Her approach was to catch her sitter at an unguarded, real moment. She loved it when, after letting the film develop for 90 seconds, she would peel it apart to reveal the image to the sitter.

She would take two 20x24 portraits and let the sitter choose. She kept the B print for herself.

In 2017 Errol Morris made a documentary about her called The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography. "Once for a grant application, I said that Elsa's art is the perfect combination of dime store photography and renaissance portraiture and I'll stick to that," Morris said.

Dorfman's work is held by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Harvard Art Museums, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine and other institutions. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which has works by Dorfman in its permanent holdings, opened an exhibition of her self-portraits earlier this year.

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