'The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography': Telluride Review

Errol Morris scores again with a modest, loving doc.

Oscar-winning director Errol Morris turns his camera on a gifted photographer who specialized in large Polaroid pictures.

Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris has turned his camera on the famous and infamous, most notably on former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in The Fog of War. Now he has made one of his most charming and unassuming films in The B-Side, an affectionate portrait of his Boston friend and neighbor, Elsa Dorfman, a photographer who worked out of the limelight but created many lasting and telling images.

Morris is known for taking unconventional approaches to his subjects. Here there are no talking heads testifying to Dorfman’s value. She is virtually the only person on camera during this swift, 76-minute movie. But we get to know several of her friends and family through the photographs she took, which are lovingly displayed here.

Dorfman describes herself as “one lucky little Jewish girl” who benefited from a lifelong friendship with Allen Ginsberg and several of his cronies. Dorfman started taking black-and-white photos of writers like Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and Anais Nin. She also photographed singers Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. She tells one choice story of how she went to a Dylan concert, and her camera was confiscated until the singer intervened and got her backstage access.

Later she discovered a new medium when Polaroid introduced a camera that took large color photographs. Dorfman specialized in family portraits, and she says bluntly, “I am interested in the surfaces of people, not their souls.” She did not purvey the dark visions that stimulated a photographer like Diane Arbus, but her own sunnier pictures could be just as compelling.

The film takes its title from the fact that many of the photos still in her possession were B-sides, the photos that her subjects decided not to buy. But she has a vast collection that may have even more value now that Polaroid went out of business and closed its factory. An air of melancholy hangs over the latter part of the film, but Dorfman refuses to indulge in self-pity. When Dorfman and Morris scrutinize a photo of Ginsberg, Morris asks her, “Does it bring Allen back?”  “Of course,” Dorfman replies matter-of-factly. Her art clearly provides some kind of respite from the ravages of time.

Morris appears in the film only occasionally. For the most part he retreats and allows his friend to hold the camera and convince us not only of her artistry but of her sensible approach to life’s upheavals and to the sheer arbitrariness of fame. Dorfman declares that she was never a media or critics’ darling. “I was at the bottom of the list,” she says when talking about her position in the ranks of modern photography. This film will convince you that she definitely deserves a higher position in the pantheon.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Director: Errol Morris
Producer-editor: Steven Hathaway
Executive producers: Robert Fernandez, Julia Sheehan
Director of photography: Nathan Allen Swingle
Music: Paul Leonard-Morgan

Not rated, 76 minutes