A look at the life and work of photographer Elsa Dorfman.

Director: Errol Morris
Star: Elsa Dorfman

Closed Captioning Available


Errol Morris, the documentarian who is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, works in such a wide range of subjects that he’s difficult to pigeonhole. Still, it would not be entirely unfair to note that his best-known films of this century are portraits of major historical figures — specifically, two United States secretaries of defense. “The Fog of War,” in 2003, featured the ruminations of Robert S. McNamara, who oversaw a large part of the Vietnam War, while “The Unknown Known,” in 2013, examined Donald H. Rumsfeld and his part in the war in Iraq.

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” Mr. Morris’s new film, is a feature of modest length on a subject of seemingly modest import, particularly relative to those other movies. It begins with Ms. Dorfman herself, puttering among her files of photographs (and the documentary stays with her in this room for about 75 percent of its running time); she speaks at first of a large portrait of her husband, and the fluorescent vest she has sewn on his overcoat (he’s wearing it in the picture) to keep him visible when he walks through streets at night while running errands. If you didn’t know anything about Ms. Dorfman, who’s 80, you might initially take her for a nice old lady with an unusual hobby — someone akin to the American eccentrics Mr. Morris portrayed in his early features, such as “Vernon, Florida” and “Gates of Heaven.”

But you would be wrong, and this is part of the point that Mr. Morris makes, quietly, with this enjoyable but also profound movie. Part of Mr. Morris’s reputation as a great documentary filmmaker is derived from his friendly-seeming but pressing interview technique, but here, when he’s heard, he speaks to Ms. Dorfman as a friend, and she responds to him with warm reminiscences of her beginnings as a photographer.

She speaks of living in New York City in the late ’50s as a single woman, and of working as a secretary at the publisher Grove Press, where she met the poet Allen Ginsberg, a lifelong friend. She relocated to Cambridge, Mass., and worked at Grolier Poetry Bookshop, all the while snapping pictures of the luminaries she met there and, perhaps more crucially, of herself and her home life. In 1974 she published “Elsa’s Housebook — A Woman’s Photojournal,” a milestone in both American photography and feminist art.

Eventually, a combination of luck and persistence led to her setting up a portrait studio equipped with a Polaroid camera that produced 20-inch-by-24-inch prints. Because of the nature of the instantly developing film, Ms. Dorfman would take only two shots of her customers, and allow them to choose which one they wanted to leave with. She kept the other — hence the movie’s title.

Mr. Morris made this portrait in the aftermath of Polaroid’s discontinuation of its large-format film and Ms. Dorfman’s subsequent retirement. “Elsa, do you think the camera tells the truth?” he asks. “Absolutely not,” she says with a laugh. Later, though, as she pauses in her descriptions of the pictures she pulls from her files, she speaks of “how many people are dead, and how many people struggled,” and you can feel how her work has revealed some truths about that.

Ms. Dorfman emerges as an artist of deep compassion, empathy, humor and wisdom. During a montage of photographs of Ginsberg, he is heard in a late-’50s audio recording reading his great poem “America.” Lines like “America when will you end the human war” and “America why are your libraries full of tears” resonate with a particular poignancy even today, as does “America when will you be angelic.” “The B-Side” is a portrait of a genuine American angel.

– GLENN KENNY, New York Times