Portraits That Heal: The Art of Elsa Dorfman

by Katherine Hoffman

Chairperson and Professor of Fine Arts at St. Anselm College. Author of Concepts of Identity: Historical and Contemporary Images of Self and Family (Harper Collins, 1996) and Georgia O'Keefe: A Celebration of Music and Dance (George Braziller, 1997)

Published in Victory Park--The Journal of  the New Hampshire Institute of Art,Vol.1, Number 2. Spring/Summer 1998

We search these faces, the silvery shadows, the garish Kodachrome surfaces, the yellow streaked early Polaroids, the elegant studio portraits....Dialogue begins, is born fresh out of our own deep, dread yearning.  Somewhere in that dialogue is hidden the clue to who I am, if I could but understand the language in which it is written.  Your history is here, too... written in fat faces and lean faces, happy and sad;  written in rejection and acceptance, mother love, lust  or honest passion.....(David Galloway)

The artist will always be part of life and change.  His task, in my view, is not purely receptive.  He is not, as some say, a simple reflection of his time.  I am more inclined to believe that the role of the artist can be an active one and that with others he has it in his hands to modify our concept of reality.   (Antoni Tapies)

It has been several months now since Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died.  The world deeply mourned the deaths of these two very different women and has seen many portraits of both.  Each in their own ways brought a sense of healing to many whom they touched.  In a world where healing on many levels is needed--a world that is complex, fragmented, and inundated with media images--Elsa Dorfman's photographic portraits are open, direct and affirming, are healing and compassionate.  They can play an important role in helping us look at ourselves as we prepare to enter the 21st century.  Her friend and poet, Robert Creeley notes:
She is a remarkable reader of people, hears and sees them so unobtrusively that there is no overbearing hand of the artist to contend with, or perversely -- to value.  Her photos have extraordinary passion for their subjects, but nothing is ever sweetened or blurred.  It seems to me a consummate art indeed which locates so clearly where people finally are, in themselves, and just here and just now.
Dorfman's portraits take on the role of remembrances in Creeley's poem, The People:
they speak of
faction, love

and divers
things. It

it surprises
them, the

like hands to
hold them
safe and
warm.  So

must it be, then,
some god looks
truly down
upon them.

Dorfman herself has said of her photographs, "Mine are the humorous.  Mine are the most classical, the most simple, the most forgiving.  I'm a healing photographer."

Elsa Dorfman has been taking photographs for nearly thirty years.  Her current large-scale, colorful 20'x24" Polaroid prints are carefully composed in front of a large, white backdrop in her studio as she attempts to capture people the way they are here and now.  Rather than searching for a private or subconscious self, Dorfman celebrates affection in family relationships and friendships.  She writes --

within families there is a web of relationships, but I don't want to convey uneasiness or distress in the portraits.  Instead I want to create with my subject the evidence that they are surviving and prevailing.  I see my family portraits--especially the megafamily portraits of several siblings and spouses and children--as proof of affectionate endurance.
Her subjects are wide-ranging: her own family--her husband and lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, their son Isaac--other artists and friends such as Ralph Hamilton and Allen Ginsberg; a group of friends and relatives; a nude pregnant woman on Valentine's Day with her husband and a symbolic red rose; a young couple on Saturday morning only partially covered by a colorful quilt; two elderly sisters, and a large multi-racial family.  Her self-composed fact sheet about her subjects is as follows:

Frequently Asked Questions about Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography on the Polaroid 20x24 Camera

Number of Polaroid 20x24 cameras in the world: 5
Number of years as a portrait photographer: 32
Number of years using Polaroid 20x24: 16
Dimensions of image: 23x36 inches
Number of portraits taken on the Polaroid 20x24: 2393
Largest group photographed: 26 people, four generations
Age of youngest person: 14 days
Age of youngest person with Rollerblades (R): 6
Age of oldest person: 94 (Clara deCollibus)
Age of oldest man in running shorts: 75
Ages of oldest couple: he, 90; she 85
Number of families who posed with pet rabbit: 3
Most frequently photographed breed of dog: labrador retriever
Most famous dog: Alex (like most famous dogs, Alex has his own Web site)
Most cats in a portrait: 5
Number of people wearing t-shirt: 437
People wearing baseball cap: 426
Couples posing nude: 5 (one w/Tobey, 19-pound Basenji)
Families posing nude: 1
Infants posing without diapers: 5
Most famous woman: Julia Child
Number of men in tuxedos: 5 (one w/scalpel; one w/PowerBook (R)
Number of women in tuxedos: 2
Children under ten in tuxedo: 1 (actually, short pants)
Tattoos: 11
Most impressive tattoo: dragon on a 9-month pregnant belly
Most frequent prop: soccer ball
Worst experience by far: family of 12; 8 members each blinked once
Most frequent subject: Allen Ginsberg
Most pounds lost by client between annual portraits: 97
Prop I wouldn't allow: real gun
Most siblings: 11
Most siblings of same sex: 6
Best metonymic prop: steering wheel brought by suburban mom
Number of sets of identical twins: 5
Number of triplets: 1
Number of brides: 2 (one on way to church w/bridesmaids)
Pregnant women: 6
Number of couples celebrating 50 years of marriage: 11
Number of dads who had kids photographed for Mother's Day: 4
Moms who had kids photographed for Father's day: 26
Number of clowns: 7
Number of transvestites: 1
Most unusual group: Moving Violations, a lesbian motorcycle gang
Rock and roll stars: 5
Pulitzer Prize winners: 2
Full professors at Harvard: 3
Number of people who knew they were dying: 8
Last spring, I had the pleasure of becomng one of Dorfman's subjects when I took my own family to be photographed at her Cambridge studio. Gathering up my three children from various locations in New England, together with our exuberant, one-hundred pound golden retriever, my husband and I drove nervously from rural New Hampshire to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Our dog had never seen so many cars, nor sat at a sidewalk cafe while his family ate pizza!  Dorfman immediately put us all at ease, welcoming us warmly, making each of us feel at home as she asked caring questions about us each individually and about us as a family.  In ten minutes she had us ready to pose, including the dog, who somehow responded to her magic as well.

Dorfman asks her subjects to dress informally or to bring props and so we came--in cut-off blue jeans, khakis, plaids--although by coincidence we seemed to be the "blue" family that day, each wearing shades of blue.  We stood entranced in front of the special large format camera, of which only five were built, handmade in the workshop of Dr. Edwin Land (the inventor and founder of Polaroid).

She usually takes two shots, stopping to view and discuss the first print with her subjects, explaining the immediate developing process, and comparing the two prints.  She is careful to let her subjects choose the final print.

She purposely retains the blotchy edges of her prints, and signs each portrait with her trademark India-ink scrawl across the bottom, along with the names of and/or occasion for her subjects.  Her informal scrawl and rough-edged effect emphasizes her sense of informality, directness, and honesty, as well as her own personal relationship with her subjects.  Often her subjects her subjects return  for  "updates" several years later.

But Dorfman's portraits are more than surface portraits.  Her portraits present a "weird nakedness," "a talisman of real lives, returning people to themselves." ).  She provides a way to "trust in one's nakedness." (Robert Creeley)

Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one's nakedness can always be felt and sometimes discerned.  This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes. (James Baldwin)
Dorfman's photographs are like the informal, loose garments that Baldwin alludes to, allowing us to accept our  nakedness, warts and all.

 The filmmaker Errol Morris describes her photographs as:

:....a perverse combination of dime store photography and Renaissance portraiture.  Elsa manages to take photographs of people and at the same time capture (perhaps better than any other photographer whose work I've  seen) the act of self-presentation which is a central  part of human existence.  She's the opposite of Diane Arbus, who asks us to deal with our potential alienation from her subject.  Here we are asked to deal with the endless discrepancy between how people see themselves and who or what they really might be.
Dorfman's own personal biography may help us understand how she has come to be the perceptive and precise photographer that she is.  Born in 1937, at Mt.Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Elsa Dorfman lived with her parents and grandmother in Dorchester until she was six months old.  She then moved to Roxbury, living in an apartment complex with other families, and close to a large extended family.  Her father was a fruit buyer for Stop & Shop, a large supermarket chain, and her mother was a homemaker throughout her childhood.  The only books in the house were Readers Digest and Book of the Month Club selections.  Dorfman describes her neighborhood as "totally Jewish and a Democratic one--I didn't know there were such things as Republicans until Roosevelt died, and my father said somberly that there were people actually celebrating  and those people were called REPUBLICANS".  World War II was seen as the event of her  childhood.

Aftter the war, in junior high, Dorfman moved to Newton--"Cashmere sweaters? I knew from nothing!!"'  While at Newton High, Dorfman spent a summer on an American Field Service program in Kassel, Germany.  She describes that experience as a "huge deal" that blew her mind.  "I knew nothing about the Holocaust and nothing about another culture.  Also the family I stayed with, Mr. and Mrs. Hans Werner Baumann, were very intellectual and loved the arts; they had a keen aesthetic.  I adored the whole experience."

Following high school, Dorfman attended Tufts University, majoring in French Literature, and spending her junior year in Paris.  While at Tufts, she also took a number of creative writing courses, thinking she might become a writer.  Upon graduating from college, she got a job as an editorial secretary at Grove Press in New York.  She was secretary to Richard Seaver, the managing editor of the press and the Evergreen Review, and remembers typing letters to Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Jasper Johns.  As part of her job, she also arranged the first poetry readings of Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley.  With a friend, Dorfman founded the Paterson Society, a fledling agency that helped to arrange poetry readings for those young poets at colleges throughout the country, as well as to publish small books of their poetry.  Creeley fondly remembers the days of the Paterson Society and noted Dorfman's importance for Ginsberg.  "I read recently a publication of Allen Ginsberg's which came out just after his death, from Zasterie Press in the Canary Islands--he is recounting several dreams.  In one he speaks of  the fact he is shortly to see Ellie, who will speak up for him and make everything all right."  Unfortunately, Dorfman had few role models to develop her own creativity.  As she has commented, " In 1959 girls didn't graduate with a great sense of possibility.  My only sense of being a creative person was to be associated with a creative man."  With little sense of possibility, Dorfman returned to Boston in 1962, feeling somewhat defeated.  Her solution then was to get a master's degree in elementary education at Boston College.

The following year Dorfman became a fifth grade teacher in Concord, Massachusetts. Dorfman writes of this experience; "I couldn't wear knee socks.  I had to get my classes to salute the flag by 7:55; they had to read from the Bible.  I had them reading short poems by Creeley and Ginsberg.  They called me Miss Dorfman; the whole thing wasn't ME."

One of the parents at the school suggested Educational Services Inc. (ESI) now  the Educational Development Corporation ((EDC) that developed innovative curriculum materials for schools as a place for Elsa.  In 1964 she began to work at EDC, running the mimeograph machine and doing classroom teaching with the biologist Lynn Margulies.

At EDC Dorfman met a number of photographers and filmmakers. Berenice Abbott had just recently left EDC where she had headed the photography department.  Her assistant, George Cope, who had printed Eugene Atget's glass plates with Abbott at EDC, taught her how to use a Hasselblad camera, develop film, and make contact prints.  Dorfman was "hooked."  She immediately announced to her poet friends, such as Bob Creeley, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, that she was a photographer.  She took her camera everywhere.  In 1972, she began selling her photographs from a supermarket shopping cart at Holyoke Center in Harvard Square.  Her friends were aghast, but she made enough money and reached enough of an audience to pursue her photography.

After nine years, Dorfman put together a collection of portraits of her friends  at her house, Elsa's Housebook --A Woman's Photojournal (David R.Godine,1974).  The book is an enchanting compilation of photographs and text by Dorfman as she records her own and friends' inner and outer lives at the time.

Relationships must have seasons and rhythms; constancy is necessarily the key.  By taking pictures in my house, I get a sense of how things change every day.  How my relationships change, the rhythms, who comes in, who hasn't come, who's busy, how busy I am.....Allen Ginsberg is a person dear to me in reality and important as an idea.  About once a week I am in a situation that makes me ask myself, "What would Allen have done?" .....Nobody can get to me like my mother can.  And I'm sure she'd say the same for me....One of the shocks of my adult life is realizing how much I'm like her.  My hysterical Jewish woman energy comes from her.  My curiosity for people. My social ability. My expectations and ambitions.  I have her crazy ear for languages, a certain rhythm and love of reptetition of words.
Dorfman first began to use the large--scale Polaroid camera in 1980 through the Polaroid Artists' Support Program, when Polaroid agreed to subsidize a session to photograph the poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. (The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. now owns a Dorfman portrait of these two poets).  It wasn't until 1987, however, that Dorfman was able to work out full-time use of the large Polaroid camera in her own studio in Cambridge, becoming the only photographer to have a Polaroid 20x24 in her studio (the others are in Edwin Land's laboratory, in Polaroid Studios in New York, in Prague, and in Berkeley, CA).

Elsa Dorfman continues her interests in "healing" through her work in a variety of ways.  She has taken photographs of people who had cancer and in 1995 collaborated with the graphic artist, Marc A. Sawyer, to illustrate the booklet 40 Ways to Fight the Fight Against AIDS.  Sawyer, who has since died of AIDS, was founder of a national AIDS awareness and fundraising organization based in Boston.  Dorfman took photographs of people with and without AIDS, all doing one of the forty things that might help AIDS victims,such as cooking, cleaning, hugging.  The exhibition was shown at the Lotus Development Corporation in Cambridge and traveled to Provincetown, MA and to New York City.  The photographs were neither political, confrontational, nor death-oriented, but rather were embracing and hopeful. (Although Lotus and other corporations underwrote the exhibition and its publicity, the artist took on the costs of producing the photographs for this project.).

On all levels, Dorfman's work evinces an intricate collaboration between the photographer and the subject.  Her ability to establish that relationship, if only fleeting in some instances, is of much significance in a world where relationships so easily flounder or are never established at all.  Deborah Martin Kao, Associate Curator of Photograhs at the Fogg Museum, Harvard, describes Dorfman as "effusive, intoxicating, and eccentric...The success of her portraits are measured  in part by the manner in which the personality of the sitter(s), their unique humanity, absolutely fills the unyielding emptiness of the studio set-up....In the final analysis Dorfman's art acts not as a "memento mori" but as a "mement vita."

Two of Dorfman's portraits were featured in a major 1997 exhibition, "About Face: Artists Portraits in Photography" at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, MA.  Organized by Kao, the exhibition included works from 1850 to the present, including artists such as Matthew Brady, Nadar, Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Kasebier, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Aaron Siskind, Lee Friedlander, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Beuys, Tina Barney, Nicholas Nixon, and Dorfman.   In her text  for Dorfman's work, Kao refers to Dorfman's perception of herself as a "literary portraitist" in the tradition of  Allen Ginsberg, "aiming to picture what she calls the "uncosmeticness" of subjects, " and always being "sympathetic to human foibles".

Where does Dorman fit in the evolving and changing scope of portrait photography:  Dr. Mary Panzer, Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. refers to Dorfman's optimistic and healing vision as unpopular in a time period that is, in general, quite pessimistic.  Dorfman's optimistic view of human nature and her ability to record the best parts of ties that bond family and friends are, according to Panzer, a true gift.  Dorfman's skills and caring attitude allow this to happen.  Dorfman's photographs help us to see the potential for one aspect of reality, an aspect that finds hope and healing through human relationships rather than despair or cynicism. For as Panzer notes, "Portraits are not simply transcriptions of one reality."

Dorfman embraces not only the "everydayness" of others, but also of herself.  She has taken numerous self-portraits, alone and with others, some with humor, some more serious.  She makes self-portraits on her birthday or when she may have only one shot left on a role of film.  A particularly humorous one, "My Annual Hair cut: Diego and Me, Febrary 19, 1992," taken during her annual hair cut, appeared in the Fogg exhibition.  A retrospective of twenty years of self-portraits was opened at the Naga Gallery in Boston this April.  Virginia Anderson of the Naga Gallery staff spoke of the pleasure of working with Dorfman and her deep sense of humanity.

Elsa 's portraits of herself and others are important in our times as she captures a "now," a "here," and a sense of the potential of human caring and relationships.  As she states, "I have a frank eye.  It is open, makes contact, and doesn't threaten... .I am moved by the affection and the caring that people have for each other."  And we the viewer can only be moved, too, as we enter the photographer's wide, compassionate embrace that includes both subjects and viewers.