A Career in Focus: Elsa Dorfman, Portrait Photographer

by Clif Garboden,  The Boston Phoenix, February 19, 1993
Unoconventional portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman suffers a conventional life as only an innocently eccentric Cantabrigian can.  She lives on a surprisingly peaceful street near Harvard Square with her husband, liberal attorney (and Phoenix contributor) Harvey Silverglate, and their teenage son, Isaac, in a house that was formerly an SDS headquarters.  Like every city dweller's, her trash gets pillaged. And since she knows the refuse from her converted-garage framing studio has intriguing potential for reuse, she puts the good stuff out conspicuoulsly so the neighbors can browse.
Dorfman takes peoples pictures for hire in her basement studio at 955 Mass Ave. in Cambridge, but what she does should never be confused with the Bachrach or Sears genres, though, as with many commercial studio portraitists, there is an element of routine to her work.  Every portrait she takes is the same size (23x36') and every subject (single, couple, or group) is shot in front of the same white background.  But her one-hour portrait sessions are unorthodox, to say the least.  Her clients (she does about 100 sessions a year) are encouraged to dress casually and to bring props--tools, paintings, sporting equipment, fetishes, pets, even whiskey bottles.  Dorfman, herself a master of informality,  wears an apron and confronts her subjects in her stocking feet.  Unlike most portrait photographers, who cover their bets by taking a dozen sshots and then letting the client pick from proofs, she makes only two exposures on large-format Polaroid color film (one of which the client keeps). Nothing, she claims, ever gets any better after the first two exposures, and besides, the big film is expensive.  (Dorfman's sessions aren't cheap, but if somebody blinks or if there is tecnical problem, she'll reshoot---no extra charge).  In full-figure poses her subjects emerge, on the spot, roughly a foot and a half high.  Working close-up, head-and-shoulder portraits can be life-size or better.

Central to her sessions, of course, is sharing and critiquing the instant result of the first one-of-a-kind print.  "I don't really direct my clients, " she says.  "I correct.  I don't interpret my subjects.  They interpret themselves....It's amazing how well it works, especially with kids.  Thanks to MTV and advertising, everbyody knows how to pose these days."

Her 20-by-24 camera, which she's rented from Polaroid since 1987, is one of five prototype large
format instant-photograpny rigs hand-built in the Polaroid labs.  All the engineers who crafted it have retired.  There are no replacement parts.  The giant camera was designed by Polaroid founder Dr. Edwin Land himself and was inted to be used as a copy camera to make one-to-one reproductions of painting and other works of art.  (An even larger one-of-a-kind walk-in Polaroid camera was installed at the Museum of Fine Arts for years.  It could produce a life-size image of an entire tapestry.)

Through the late '70s and early '80s, Polaroid aggressively supported fine-art photography by encouraging gallery photographers to use and experiment with its film and cameras.  In 1980 Dormfman tried the 20-by-24, then housed at the Museum School, and never looked back.  She began renting time on that camera for personal projects and for commissioned portraits.  In 1987, she persuaded Polaroid to lease her the only afvailable 20-by-24 (which had previously been installed in Japan) and opened her studio.

The large-format Polaroid medium is an intrinisic part of Dorfman's style and presentation.  Unlike the more familiar "develop while you watch" Polaroid films for the companys Spectrum and OneStep consumer cameras, the 20-by-24 eats giant rolls of film stock that work on the older "peel-apart" instant photography technolgoy.  This involves sandwiching developing chemicals between the film's negative (on which the picture is taken) and the photo paper that will hold the final image.  Then the developmen time's up (70 seconds), you peel the postive and negative sheets apart and throw the negative away.  It is useless and turns black in about fifteen minutes.

In the process, some of the chemicals get smeared around the margins, rendering the borders of the finished print rough and discolored.  Although it would be neater to trim the print or cover the streaky blotches with a matte, Dormfman prefers framing the entire sheet of film---borders exposed.  And she signs, dates, and captions every portrait in her trademark India-ink scrawl across the bottom.  It's a distincitve format; ther is no mistaking Dorfman's handiwork.  She copies every Polaroid portrait onto conventional four-by-five color film so clients can order reprints.

Dorfman is a comfrortale fit with the 02139 mystique, dividing her time between her art and her family, her work and h er home.  In a city cluttered with poets and thinkers, a life that sets its own pace in the name of creativity is no anomaly.  But amid the surrounding real and postured bohemianism, Elsa Dorfman, now in her early 50s, is perhaps more of a genuine article.  Her credentials date back to 1959, when, after being graduated from Tufts, she opted to forsake her assumed schoolteacher destiny and headed for New York.  There she found a  job as secretary to Evergreen Review managing editor Richard Seaver at Grove Press.  Soon she was setting up poetry readings at colleges across the country for such Beat luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, and Charles Olson.

That lasted about a year, after which the druggy Village ambiance got to Dorfman, and she scurried back to Boston, got a teaching degree from BC, and taught elementary school in Concord.  After a few years of trying to jusfify her two worlds by reading Ginsberg haiku to fifth graders, Dorfman hooked up with the Educational development Corporation, a progressive teaching think tank in Newton where she learned and obsessed on, photography.

For years, she photographed her friends, sometimes providing underground celebrity portraits to decorate the Grolier Book Shop and dust jacket shots for poetry anthologies with exceptionally short press runs.  Many of her black and white 35mm portraits were shot in the living room of her Flagg Street duplex (which turned into a sort of perpetual crash pad for visiting impoverished poets), each of her subjects draped over the same Victorian monstrosity of a couch.  ("We still have it.  It's our living-room furniture.")

Whether Dorfman fully realizes it or not, the concept, a parade of drop-ins snapped in a consistent setting--different faces visiting the same space--is clearly mirrored in her current portraiture format.  Once subjects lolled on Moby Couch; now they pose on her generic timeless/placeless studio set.  Likewise, her decades-old habit of returning to the same subject from time to time persists.  (Allen Ginsberg is documented regularly; so are members of Isaac's grade-school classes, and more than one return portrait customer has been photographed holding an earlier Dorfman study.)  And she's still dedicated to turning her camera on her family and friends.

In  1972, Dorfman entered the pantheon of unforgettable Cambridge charcters by hawking her prints from Columbus Day to Christmas out of a supermarket shopping cart at the Holyoke Center.  The Cambridge cops, of course, hassled her, along with all the unlicensed sidewalk sandal vendors, but then-boyfriend Silverglate convinced the authorities that photo sales were protected under the First Amendment, and for a few seasons, Elsa's photo concession was an expected Harvard Square holiday tradition.

Two years later, David R. Godine published Dorfman's annotated collection of personal photographs, Elsa's Housebook--A Woman's Photojournal, which featured informal portaraits (shot in conventional black and white) of house guests Ginsberg, Creeley, Lawrtence Ferlinghetti, Peter Orlovsky, and Robert Bly, mixed in with shots of family and less-famous scruffy folke.  (The couch played a major supporing role.)

Elsa Dorfman does not attract a traditional portrait-studio clientele.  Her subjects, all of whom have seen her work, find her by word of mouth, and everyone who sits for her, she claims, is no more than two people away from someone she's already photographed.  It's like an extended family, and in two shots she manages to caputre graceful, coherent, and convincing images of people of all ages and backgrounds--no clumsiness, no awkward postures, no obvious nervousness--even in groups.  As any photographer knows, that's the result of something more than just knowing when to trip the shutter.  It comes down to relating to your subjects and putting them, and yourself, at ease.

How does Dorfman manage this?  "As Jack Kerouac said to me once, ' I just do it.' It's not my job to explain what I do." she says.  But that's too facile an answer even for a modest photo artist.  Proceeded to explain further, Dorfman ends up sounding like the Mr. Rogers of portraiture--the antithesis of such cruel-and-critical super-analytical portraitists as, say, Diane Arbus, for whom every subject was an object of exploitation for comment.  "I create an atmosphere that says it's okay to be the way you are.  I project approval.  I'm very open with my subjects,  and that's easy because the people who come to me are already open, un-uptight people, or they wouldn't choose me....My hardest subjects are anorexic, overachieving women.  They're so tough on themselves that I'm exhausted when I'm done.  You can't embrace them.  There is no comfort zone with a person like that."

Still there must be something more to Dorfman's lucidity within what is perhaps the most fragile and demanding of photography's schools.  Perhaps it is precisely because she doesn't try to probe beneath her subjects' skins that she ends up revealing their best sides.  When she says she's "open," Dorfman seems to mean friendly and accepting, not touchy-feely/mindmelding.  "I've been overwhelmed by all the openness I was exposed to in the '60s," she explains.  "I was stuck in so many rooms....what were they?....encounter groups, that I got to the point that I wanted to tell people, 'Just leave your psychological clothing on!' "

And, for the most part, they do.  Dorfman's technically exquisite portraits are attractive and esygoing.  Seldom is there much to challenge the imagination.  Almost never do you suspect that the faces she's captured are letting you peek at any secrets or betraying any guarded hypocricies.  But there are a few hidden agendas.  Though Dorfman is reluctant to write or tell personal stories out of respect for her clients' confidentiality, she often sees more than she photographs.  "I'm very attuned to people around me.. That's common to portrait photographers, and it takes a lot of psychic energy.  I can spot the vulnerable members of a family--sense tensions in a group.  But I don't try to show that in my portraits."

Clients make appointments with Dorfman for all the predictable photo-commemorative reasons-birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, and so on.  Some show up every so many years just to document how the kids have grown.  ("I hate it when my families get divorced,' Dorfman complains.)  But sometimes, there are more somber motives; motives that speak to the illusion of immortality that photography (perhaps especially large-format photography) offers; motives that, Dorfman speculates, relate somehow to the 19th century customs of "coffin photography" and sentimental potraits of mothers cradling dead infants; motives that remind us of the power and psychology of photographs. People diagnosed with fatal diseases want to stand for portraits before their illness advances visibly.  Even stranger-seeming, Dorfman notes familes that have commissioned group portraits on the anniversary of a tragic loss  "There must be an impulse to document the healing," she says.  "Not to commemorate someone's death, but to commemorate that you've survived the event and that you're whole again."

Time and again, when asked to characterize her work, Dorfman points out that the variety in her portraits has to be found in the subjects, not the setting. She takes the same approach  to her personal projects -- photographing  Isaac's class or even a logistically nightmarish 20-by-24 location shoot at the Big Apple Circus--as she does to her commissions.  and client-to-client, the white no-seam backgdrop looks pretty much the same.  (One suspects Dorfman intended the props with which her subjects are encouraged pose to be a stronger individualizing absurdist element than they sually are.  The props are only occasionally involving or funny; too often they end up being just cute.)  The visual uniformity of her shots unintentionally transforms the entire body of Dorfman's portraiture into a piece of conceptual art--akin to hiding a camera on a Green Line car and photographing everyone who sat in a given seat for a decade.

Rummaging through Dorfman's back files, though, it's surpsing to see that her thoroughly consistent light touch actually evolved out of something more varied.  Compared to recent pictures, the 20j-by-24 portraits Dorfman took in 1984-85 (before she had her own studio) are immediately recognizable as photo-art--the subject's identity isn't necessarily more important than the lighting, composition, or attitude--all of which in Dorfman's older examples are far from standard.  The critic in me sees more experimentation in the old stuff.  And preers it.  You don't have to be in these photos to appreciate them.  They work on two levels--as photos and as portraits.  There are implied messages that may have nothing to do with the models as individuals.

Dorfman herself doesn't see it that way, noting only that she used to vary the distance to her subjects more and commenting, "My first black and white work was grimmer.  The old 20-by-24 portraits weren't as playful.  My work lightened up when I got my own studio."

Clearly, Dorfman prefers where her work is today--client-specific, client-pleasing, almost minimal, and unpretentious.  "Sometimes, you have a portrait that works as an icon, " she says.  "A father and two sons, all in hockey uniforms--that's iconic; that'll work for anyone.  but by the year 2050, my pictures of families from Newton will be iconic, too."

And indeed, today's Uncle Louis will be tomorrow's proto-90's stereotype, just as all those unremarkable-in-their-day highschol yearbook portraits have come to speak for the '40s, '50s, and other decades.  Except that Dorfman's portraits have the advantage of being remarkable in their own time as well.  And the fact that her subjects are undoctored by dress codes or stage directions is going to make Dorfman's collective societal portrait all the more accurate and valuable to the future generation that "rediscovers" it.  So what if some of the subjects are holding poodles or barbells? Our posterity hs a right to see us, foibles and all.