Portraits by Elsa Dorfman on the Polaroid 20x24 Camera

Interview by Chris Wright, Stuff Magazine, February 1999

Elsa Dorfman started her adult life as an aspiring writer.  In 1959, having just graduated from Tufts University with a degree in French Literature, Dorfman landed a job at Grove Press in New York, where she set up poetry readings for the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov--and chewed over the idea of putting pen to paper herself.  At the age of 17, however, Dorfman abandoned that idea in favor of photography.  "There was nothing in my life to suggest that the camera would be a perfect instrument for my temperament." Dorfman says on her web site.  "Except that I was a starer."

Despite the career switch, Dorfman stayed in close contact with many of her writer friends.  Allen Ginsberg remains her most photographed subject, and poes like Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gail Mazur have also been freequent subjects of Dorfman's work--in addition to sundry professors, Pulitzer Prize winners, artists, musicians, and mimes.  Indeed, the career choice was a good one: over 34 years, Dorfman's intimate, colorful, life-affirming portraits have been shown in dozens of venues from Munich to Maine.

In the early '80s, Dorfman's career took another turn when she acquired an obscure camera, one of only six built by Polaroid inventor and founder Edwin H. Land: the Polaroid 20-by-24.  Described by Dorfman as "a very large rectangular box," the 20-by-24 weighs in at about 100 pounds, and the images it produces (immediately, as with the hand-held models) are equally impressive; a whopping 12-by-36 inches.

There seems to be no shortage of people willing to shell out $1500 ($1800 for a dog alone) for one of Dorfman's poster-size portraits.  Besides working as a commercial portrait artist, Dorfman keeps herself busy with an ongoing series of self-portraits---such as last year as well as frequent forays into projects she finds interesting--such as last year's widely publicized "Bold and Bald" shoot involving three women who had recently undergone chemotherapy.

Elsa Dorfman lives and works in Cambridge, along with her husband, criminal attorney Harvey Silverglate.  She spoke with STUFF via e-mail.

Do you have any techniques yu use to make your sitters feel comfortable?

I'm sure I have techniques, but I'm not aware of them; at least, I try not to be too self-conscious about them.  I do make sure my subjects know that they are equal partners with me, that the portrait is a collaboration and that I can't do it all myself.  If their mind is somewhere else, I can't make them seem engaged.  The subject has to be engaged, as to participate, at least in my kind of portraiture.

You also take portraits of dogs--how do you make them behave?

I pray a lot when I know I am having a session with dogs.  When I do dogs by themselves, I work with Kathy deNatale, a wonderful dog trainer.  I couldn't manage the dogs and the camera all by myself.

I imagine dogs can be temperamental subjects--is this why you charge more for them?

I only charge more for dogs when I work with Kathy deNatale.  I try to keep life simple and charge the same fee no matter how many pets are in the picture.  I've done five cats held by three teenagers, a couple with the\ree large dogs, including a 170-pound Newfoundland.  I've done families with pet rats, ferrets, bunnies, snakes.  Luckily, cows and goats and horses can't get in the elevator to my studio.

You're confronted with a subject who just won't relax--who seems jittery or just not "there."  How do you deal with this?

Sometimes I let a difficult person be difficult.  I figure, hey, that's his or her problem.  I turn myself inside out to help the person switch channels, but some people are committed to their foul moods.  I have to say I rarely run into such a person.  People who are prone to that kind of attitude don't call me.  They stay away.

Do you ever end up with shots that you don't like?

I never let a person leave with a portrait I don't love.  It is very easy, because the subject and I see the portrait in 70 seconds.  There it is.  does it work?  How can it be improved?  The process is very much like performance art, very interactive.  I take two or three exposures and the subject chooses one.  Sometimes they don't choose the image I prefer.

Isn't there an inherent conflict between the concerns of a portrait photographer and her subjects--you want the photo to look good, they want themselves to look good?

The people who come to me come because they want to look the way they are.  Now maybe they have spent the three previous days having a makeover, specifically casual makeover.  I would never know that.  I take them as they are, as they present themselves to me when they come off the elevator.  I love clothes with small stains.  Rips.   I did a great family portrait recently and the dad had this great thread on his pants.  It made the picture.

You've said that the best subjects are the ones who seem "at home"  Can you briefly describe what this means?

Well, to me "at home" implies "engaged", not vacant.  There is someone there.  The someone is accessible.  With kids it is easy, there is always someone there.  But people sometimes lose that sense of being there as they get older.  Something in our society perhaps rubs it out of them a bit.  Or a lot.  Life is tough for a lot of people.

Do you find that your growing renown as a photographer affects the way subjects behave?

Not yet.  I'm a pretty down-home person.  Renown doesn't have much reality for me.  I wait in line at restaurants.  I do or don't get tickets to movies.  Sometime people recognize me and tell me they love my work.  That always makes my day.  but I don't come on like a rising star.  In fact, maybe I disappoint my subjects.  Maybe they say to themselves "This is her?  She really needs my help!  Well, she was recommended by Mrs. Speigel, and always goes to the best---but could this be???"

Does the size of your camera unsettle people?

No, the camera intrigues them.  It is sort of the size of a refrigerator.  Little kids who are used to pocket-size cameras don't even believe it is a camera.  They haven't seen anything like it before.  Actually, I think in the Babar stories, Babar goes to a photographer and gets his picture taken with a biggish camera.

Allen Ginsberg, one of your most frquent subjects, is someone who was "at home' for you.

Ginsberg was a total genius when he was in front of a camera.  I couldn't take a bad picture of him, and neither could anyone else.  He intuitively knew how a great portrait of himself should be taken.  He understood the camera. He understood the importance of details.  The commonplace was, of course, his thing.  He understood how to make an image an icon.

Who else has been a great sitter?

My husband, Harvey A. Silverglate, isn't bad.  My son Isaac and his friends are fabulous.  I have been photographing them since they were three or four, and now they are in their twenties.  They know just how they want to look and they know how to do it.  Teenagers are fabulous to photograph.  They know what an attitude is and they know what kind of attitude they want to have.

Do writers generally make the best subjects?

I would say, without a doubt, NO.

You own one of only five Polaroid 20-by-24 cameras in the world.  Do you know who owns the other four?

Alas, I rent the camera.  I could have bought a Rolls Royce if I had owned the camera, but Polaroid would never sell the camera to me or to anyone else, so I am a happy renter.  There is one camera that travels between the Mass College of Art and the Rochester Institute of Technology.  There is one in a Polaroid studio in Soho, one at the Calumet camera store in Berkeley, CA, and one in Prague.  We all know each other.  We swap information and help each other.  Ther cameras are very arcane and delicate.  They weren't made to last twenty years, and this is their 23rd year or so.  They were made for PR purposes by Edwin Land.  He wanted to show off the capability of his color Polaroid film.  He never thought of the cameras as a product..  All the folks who built them are retired or dead.  The story of the camera is very touching.

It sounds like you have a personal relationship with your camera.  Does it have a name?

I never named my camera, but for years I tied a wishbone to the bellows.  And I have always had a tiny toy car glued to the lens frame for good luck.  I do have a personal relationship with the camera.

What would you do if it died?

Well, I ceertainly have wondered what I would do if the camera somehow ended.  Since I rent it, I knock wood every day.  I mean, you know what it's like when the landlord might just knock on your door.  I guess I would go into a big depression and then I would pull myself out of the big depression and go on to something else.  There was life for me before the Polaroid 20-by-24 and there would be life after it.  But it wouldn't ever be the same.  I would be brokenhearted.  I'm 61.  Maybe the camera and I will fade out at about the same time.

You started taking pictur4es fairly late--in fact, you were a writer before you were a photographer.  What made you switch?

Late? Maybe late for ballet.  For gymnastics.  For the violin.  I was 27!!!!!!! I love to write.  I adore to write.  At the time, the camera was easier for me than the tyupewriter.  I could figure out my way with the camera easier than I could with the pen.

How does your work now differ from the work you were doing in the early days?

This is a hard one, one that I don't think I can answer---and one that I don't think is my job to answer.  I'm afraid if I try to answer it I will jinx something.  Jack Kerouac once said to me that he refused to even think about certain questions. It wasn't his job.it was someone else's job; the reviewers, the professors.  I take him to heart.

Do you make a living with your portraits?

I manage to pay my bills for the camera rental, my little personal projects, my studio, my materials, my advertising.  I couldn't live in Cambridge if I weren't married, as successful as I am and as hard as I work.  It amazes me and makes me shrink from talking to young photographers.  How can I encourage them?/  Work hard for 34 years and you will have 34 years of fun and love and stimulation, but the bills, the rent---forget it.  But I have noticed that young people are more savvy now than I was when I was young.  I'm taking a course now for small businesspersons, to help me face up to the fact it isn't the sixties anymore and that making money is okay.

Does advertising in the New Yorker help?

Advertising in the New Yorker was a gas.  I heard from old boyfriends, old boyrriends of friends of friends who wondered what had happened to Maggie from the party in Jamaica Plain thirtiy years ago.  I heard from old camp friends from forty years ago.  I heard from frame salesmen who wanted my business.  And I heard from enough people who wanted me to take their portraits to pay for the ads.

You've photographed some famous people over the years.  Is this ever daunting?

I don't photograph famous people as a rule.  It isn't my thing.  But sometimes there I am with someone really accomplished in my studio: Julia Child, Allen Ginsberg, peter Wolf, Jonathan Richman, Robert Creeley, Gail Mazur, Mike Mazur.

Didn't you do Dylan?

I photographed Dylan a23 yaears ago on the Rolling Thunder Revue.  I was with Allen Ginsberg.  Dylan was totally unaware of me.  I mean, he looked at the camera and was nice to me, but it was nothing personal.

Is there anyone you haven't shot whom you'd like to?

Madonna. Michael Jordan.  I just said I don't photograph stars, and look who comes to mind.  Shows how inconsistent I am.  I have a friend who just died and I never made a portrait of him alone.  I could kick myself about that.

Wasn't there a temptation to snap a few shots of Louise Woodward (Dorfman's husband, Harvey Silverglate, was on Woodward's defense team), someone who holds an inherent fascination as a subject?

Well, I did photograph Louise alone, with her sister, her mom and dad, and with her lawyers.  She was like any other person.  I'm not sure who would hold an "inherent fascination"except someone I had seen in a zillion portraits, like Michael Jordan or Madonna or someone whose character just screamed.

Do your pictures ever reveal something about the subject that you weren't previously aware of?

I'm not so interested in revealing anything about my subjects.  I'm interested in the surface.  Sometimes I notice things when I am studying the picture and am almost embarrassed by what they reveal.  But I don't try for it.

I noticed a portrait on your Web site of a couple of friends of mine who have since  broken up.  Do you know the fate of the photos when that happens?

It happens.  At least two couples have given the portraits back to me, which is the best.  I would hate to think that one of my portraits was torn up in anger.  I don't mid if a portrait ends up in a flea market--that has a certain charm--or in the cellar or the back of the closet.  I always feel very sad when I heard  that a family I have photographed is in the throes of divorce.

What's the most difficult shoot you've done?

The most difficult portrait sessions are the ones when someone makes an appointment because they are dying and want to leave their family with a picture of themselves robust.  I go through these sessions with a broken heart, and I work so hard to get a wonderful portrait.  It's a great honor to me to be asked to take such a photograph.

How about the oddest?

The oddest ones are the ones who call up and want some sort of sexy portrait.  They never send in a deposit, never leave their real names, and never show up.  Thank God.