It feels surprising, but Errol Morris has never made a feature film about an artist before. Elsa Dorfman may not even consider herself an “artist,” so it’s possible he still hasn’t. But in “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” Morris is bonding and relating to Dorfman in a way he usually doesn’t with his subjects. It’s made for one of his sweeter, if more fleeting, films.
Morris’s interviews in his documentaries are always square to the camera, with the speaker looking you dead in the eye. His confrontational position always leaves some ambiguity as to whether Morris admires these people or wants to gawk at them. Not so in “The B-Side,” where Dorfman is often shot askew as she hunches over a work table and looks fondly at boxes and drawers full of her old photographs. Occasionally Morris’s camera gets inches from Dorfman’s face, but he looks fondly on her frumpy black hair, thick glasses and congenial face of a kind Jewish mother.
Dorfman came to mild success in the ‘60s with photos of Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan, among other luminaries of the Beat scene and New York literature circles. But her lifelong passion was “large scale portrait photography.” Dorfman got her hands on a massive Polaroid camera, one of just a few ever made. The camera is a bulky contraption the size of a refrigerator, and it’s capable of taking life-size portraits just like the instant Polaroid’s your mom snapped before your prom.
The people she chooses to photograph rarely get flattering, magazine style portraits, but they’re all real, with each goofy outfit choice, hairstyle and smile blown up to life-size proportions. When Dorfman displays her photographs, she demands that the borders of the Polaroid be left visible rather than cropped out of the frame. It’s a distinct signature of her work that makes her work look charmingly campy and artificial.
In fact, the portraits she often admires most are the ones that contain flaws or imperfections, whether because of a technical problem with the camera or because of the people posing. She calls these “The B-Side,” the photograph that the paying customer didn’t choose. One has a baby crying as the parents try to calm it. In another the light bleeds and glistens in a yellowy, gorgeously unnatural way called “motter.” One completely lops a guy’s head off. They’re flawed, but they’re delightful.
You could say this is exactly how Morris has approached documentary filmmaking throughout his career. You can imagine the pet owners of “Gates of Heaven” or the locals of “Vernon, Florida” gawking in front of one of Dorfman’s cameras. At one point Dorfman explains she’s interested in capturing the surfaces of people rather than their souls. Neither Dorfman nor Morris’s work has ever tried to probe the depths of a person’s mind, but they observe so much about their upbringing and personality just by looking.
Morris includes in “The B-Side” an old TV interview Dorfman did in which the host asked whether the camera tells the truth. Dorfman says. “That’s what I love about it. It’s not real at all,” Dorfman says. One look at Dorfman’s A-side photo opposite her B-side tells two completely different stories about the people who came into her studio that day. This is an approach to filmmaking that Morris and his contemporary Werner Herzog have pushed in their documentaries for years, and now we understand how art and perspective relate to the truth.
But Dorfman is part of a dying breed of photographers, not only because film is disappearing in place of digital technology. Dorfman is dejected that the people who bought Polaroid from bankruptcy showed no care for the machines and history they had in their possession. But she’s more ebullient than many about the future of film and of her own archive of work.
That optimism and good-spirited charm radiates throughout “The B-Side’s” very brief 76 minutes. Dorfman’s photos are hokey, but both they and this filmed portrait are enough for a good smile.