What is so amazing about Elsa Dorfman and her large-format Polaroid photography is that, in spite of many limitations, she gets such variety. The most obvious limitation is of her own choosing--she only does portraits. Portraiture has its strictures in that the subject must be at close range. The 20x24 Polaroid camera Dorfman uses also imposes restrictions. It is very large, heavy, and therefore not portable. All sittings must take place in Dorfman's Cambridge studio. Since the camera has little depth of field, the backgrounds might as well be simple, and indeed they are white. The camera cannot be rototated so the format is always vertical. Within these limitations, Dorfman moves freely.
The variety she achieves is a reflection of the nature of this photographer. She is a no-frills person who is informal, warm, and humorous. Unlike many photographers' subjects, who resemble long-suffering dental patients, Dorfman's clients relax, enjoy themselves, and collaborate at their best. In her own words, she shares insights into her life and her work.
I've always done portraits even as far back as 1965 with black-and-white 35-millimeter film. I don't have a feel for still life and landscape, maybe a little for table-top clutter. For a very long time, I did pictures of writers because they were my friends.
I started out wanting to be a writer. I graduated from Tufts in 1959. Even though I wanted to be a writer, it never occurred to me that I could just go off and be a writer. The girls at Tufts were very smart, maybe smarter than the boys, but none of them were doctors or lawyers. They all were elementary school teachers, and I was damned if I was going to be one.
I went to New York where I got a job on the Evergreen Review. I perceived my role there as helping creative men. I arranged the first poetry readings of the sixties with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac. It was a handmaiden's job, but I considered it a much more than adequate role in life.
It turned out that life in New York was a little too crazy and druggy for me. I had enough of the middle-class persona not to go for it. I continued to arrange poetry readings, but I moved back to Boston. I was really depressed and thought, "What am I going to do now?"
In desperation, even embarrassment, I went to Boston College and got a degree in elementary education--the most ridiculous thing in the world. I got a job to teach fifth grade in Concord, MA. All my poet friends came to talk to my class. In 1963, one of the parents said, "You shouldn't be doing this. I work for a place in Newton called Education Development Corporation. They really need far-out teachers like you."
She got me a job at EDC; it was a place with an aura of great photography. Berenice Abbott had been there, and George Cope was there. It was a place where you could just invent what you wanted to do. I had time on my hands and asked the photographer to teach me what he was doing. He did and I loved it. EDC let me borrow a camera, and finally I had enough money to buy one. That was it.
It was ten years of photography, and then I put together Elsa's Housebook--A Woman's Photojournal, which was published by Godine. Then, six years later, I started working with this camera. It was very expensive, and Polaroid wasn't subsidizing me. So, I said to Polaroid, "What if I got people to hire me and I took their portraits, then I could afford to fool around with the camera?" They said, "Okay." So, starting in 1980, I rented it one day a month. It was at the Museum School. You got the camera and a technician. Ii would bring my clients to the school.
Little by little, more and more people heard about me, and I was able to rent the camera twice a month. I got to know the people at Polaroid really well. I kept nagging them by saying, "I could have much more fun and do much more work if I could rent the camera all the time.' There are only four of them. My problem was that people would call me, and I'd have to say, "I'm only shooting on Thursday the 25th from nine to five.'
Finally, I heard that this particular camera was coming back from Japan. Ii asked for it and finally overcame some of their reservations and got it. That was two and a half years ago. I rented these two rooms and the hall in this secure office building. I took out a bank loan and bought all these lights, and here I am. Now, I can take clients whenever they want, like Saturdays or Sundays. This is a great space. It's secreted away with no windows; people feel very private.
I am very privileged to have this camera. It's a prototype. The people who built it are all retired from Polaroid. There ar no spare parts, and there's only one man who knows how to fix it, Peter Bass. He's the expert. If it weren't for him, I'd be desperate. Hhe calibrates it for me. Ii can't seem to do it; I make a mess. It's too exacting. It's a very magical tool, this camera. Every picture is a miracle because it was never meant to be a volume machine.
I have one set of highly developed muscles that are called portrait muscles. By the time I've spoken to people on the phone, I have something to go on. If they don't know my work, I tell them to go to my shop at Charles Square and see a lot of it. I won't do anyone who hasn't seen the work.
It's really like being a psychic medium. People pass through me and the camera, and a portrait comes out. I must say, I don't understand it. It's magical.
A lot of the credit goes to my subjects. They are truly marvelous. They are not only at ease with me, they are comfortable with themselves. They are not people who feel, "I have too many freckles. My hair is too curly or too flat." They know I hate coiffure. If they say, "Oh, you can't touch it up? This isn't for me." I say, "Don't feel badly." I get the most wonderful people because they are so self-selective and self-accepting, braces and all. I tell them not to try to coordinate outfits and colors but just to wear their favorite clothes, T-shirts and ratty sneakers. I love ratty sneakers.
I like to do the whole body, and if the person returns the next year I'll do the face. Ii like to get establishing shots of the whole family before I do the children alone. Of course, some people want just the children.
It seems to me that the pictures are all about affection, either for the person they are going to pose with or the person the photograph is for. So, people come to commemorate their own relationship or to make someone else happy. I always try to protect and embrace the vulnerable person in the group. There's a whole group who come to celebrate their own survival. I did two families who survived tremendous car accidents. I find that very moving.
Psychologically, I could never do more than eight a month. It takes a lot out of me. Ii print them, make a copy for myself, and sew them at the top. They all come in a 23x36-inch plexiglass frame designed for me by Molly and Van Wood of Small Corp in Greenfield, MA.
It is surprising to some people that I limit each sitting to two shots. I remember the day I decided it. One reason is practical--the film is very expensive. The other is that I knew I couldn't do it in one shot. After two shots, they don't get any better, the attention wanes. And of course with Polaroid, we all get a chance to see it. The subject has more control than with ordinary photography where you just take one shot afrter another and don't see the results until a lot later. The photographer has all the power. With Polaroid, someone may say, "I don't like my chin that way. I won't do that again." Even a three-year-old will respond to it and will know he doesn't want to look like a jerk.
People are very naked with me, and I respect that. I am so honored that they are willing to share with me the affection they have for each other.
I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I have everything I need or want and more than I expected. I have a nice gallery in New York, Brent Sikkema; he used to be in Boston. I apply for grants and usually don't get them, but I got one when I really needed it. I got a Bunting Fellowship in 1972 when I was desperate and couldn't pay my rent. I had it for two years. It was incredible. I'll always be grateful to the Bunting Institute. Now, a grant would be terrific because I'd like to do a book, but that's a different level of need. I'll have a book eventually. I'm doing everything I applied for grants for and didn't get. That's good fortune.
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Copyright 1970-2010 © Elsa Dorfman.