Elsa Dorfman, who made art with giant Polaroids, dies at 83

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Elsa Dorfman, who made art with giant Polaroids, dies at 83
Postcards of photos taken by Elsa Dorfman, a photographer who uses a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera, one of only five originally made by the company, in her studio in Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 22, 2015. Dorfman died on May 30, 2020, in Cambridge, Mass., where she had lived for more than 50 years. She was 83. Her husband, Harvey Silverglate, said the cause was kidney failure. Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times.

by Randy Kennedy

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 1980, a little-known Boston photographer named Elsa Dorfman got a chance to use a rare Polaroid camera that weighed 200 pounds and produced prints 2 feet high, a Godzilla of a device that dwarfed her.

It could not have been more different from the small cameras she used to shoot friends and poets like Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. But she was smitten with the Polaroid’s power to render a paintingsize image so rapidly that she and her subject could watch the likeness materialize together before their eyes. “I was in love,” she said.

Polaroid deployed the cameras as public relations tools, often reserving them for famous photographers. But Dorfman pursued the company so relentlessly (“I nagged them and I nagged them”) that it finally agreed to let her lease one for herself.

Over the next three decades, she directed her big Polaroid to such profound and meaningful ends that the company probably should have paid her for its use.

Operating from the basement of an office building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she ran a portrait studio through which flowed generations of newlyweds, new parents, grandparents and extended families, as well as dying cancer patients, circus clowns, coifed poodles, lesbian motorcycle gang members and celebrities like Julia Child and Faye Dunaway.

Dorfman insisted that she didn’t consider herself an artist. But her work, which placed her within a lineage of commercial portraitists reaching back almost to photography’s birth, added up nonetheless to an extraordinary collective portrait of her time, one whose constituent parts now reside in major museum collections.

Dorfman died May 30 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she had lived for more than 50 years. She was 83. Her husband, Harvey Silverglate, said the cause was kidney failure.

Dorfman’s intention with the Polaroid, she told filmmaker Errol Morris in his 2016 documentary, “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” was to try to get as close as possible to what she saw and felt, a mission she pursued with a sense of almost tragic humility.

“If you’re a photographer always nailing down ‘What’s the now?’” she said in the film, “it doesn’t matter how much you try. The now is racing beyond you.”

In a sense, Dorfman was racing against time almost from the moment she embarked on her Polaroid work. The company entered a precipitous decline in the 1980s, outpaced by photographic technology. Before declaring bankruptcy in 2001, it closed several factories, and in 2008 it ceased mass production of the film and chemicals she needed to make her prints, meaning she had to rely on a stockpile maintained by Polaroid enthusiasts.

“It’s dwindling, and I’m dwindling,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 2016 as she began ramping down her studio’s operations.

But for as long as it lasted she reveled in the imperiled, defiantly analog nature of her work, which required sheer physical stamina in wrestling the prints from the camera’s wooden body.

“She ran this camera alone for 30 years, which is kind of insane,” said Nafis Azad, former director of photography for the 20x24 Studio, a Manhattan company that acquired Polaroid materials. “Typically, two or three people run one of these things.”

As unwieldy as the camera could be, Dorfman’s concerns about her photographs were more philosophical than technical. She wanted her subjects to be able to present themselves as they saw fit, with her own sensibility kept outside the frame.

The closest she came to an artist’s statement, pinned to her studio door, said of her subjects, “I do not try to probe or illuminate their souls.” It added: “They embrace their uneven features and the cowlick that won’t stay down — even the few extra pounds. The Japanese have a word for this pose of total naturalness and total attention — ‘sonomama.’ As my work on this camera has evolved, I have come to realize that my portraits are about affection and survival.”

As she told Morris: “The camera is like a fork or a spoon. It’s an instrument you eat your soup with. It’s not the soup.”

To criticism that her work was not sufficiently deep or critical, that too many people in her pictures were smiling, she added dismissively that unhappiness was burden enough: “You don’t need to walk around with a picture of it.”

Elsa Susan Dorfman was born April 26, 1937, in Cambridge, the eldest of three daughters of Arthur and Elaine (Kovitz) Dorfman. Her father was a fruit and vegetable buyer for the Stop & Shop grocery chain; her mother was a homemaker. Dorfman grew up in the Roxbury section of Boston and in Newton, Massachusetts.

She studied French literature at Tufts University and, after graduating, moved to New York City, where she worked as a secretary at Grove Press during its heyday as a Beat Generation clubhouse. She befriended poets like Ginsberg, serving as what she called their devoted and decidedly square “handmaiden,” helping them manage their correspondence and readings schedules.

Poet Gary Snyder sent her a Mamiya camera from Japan in 1967, and she began using it tentatively at first, feeling that she did not possess the temperament of a real photographer. “Except that I was a starer,” she wrote in “Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal,” a book of her black-and-white portraits, published in 1974. “I looked at everything and stared at everyone.”

It was Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky who were her entree to the Polaroid world. The company agreed to subsidize a photo shoot if the two were her subjects. Ginsberg held an amaryllis and in short order shed his clothes, as did Orlovsky. Dorfman was supposed to take only 10 exposures — each was expensive — but soon realized that she had taken 30.

“No wonder they were aghast,” she wrote of the company’s officials. “The amaryllis we had brought to the studio went from tight shut to full bloom under the studio lights. I was hooked.”

In addition to her husband, a prominent civil liberties lawyer and writer, Dorfman is survived by a son, Isaac Dorfman Silverglate; two grandchildren; and her sisters, Sandra Phyllis Dorfman and Jane Steele.

On the occasion of Dorfman’s first career retrospective, which opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in February, a reporter for The Boston Globe recounted one of her favorite quotations, borrowed from André Breton, who regarded it as a riddle. Dorfman, on the other hand, considered it a way of life: “Seeing you for the first time, I recognized you without the slightest hesitation.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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