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
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
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
Do you find that your growing renown as a photographer affects the way
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
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
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
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
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
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.