If you’re like me, the word “Polaroid” conjures images of handheld cameras and taking pictures on a whim followed by shaking the resulting print (pointlessly) to encourage them to develop faster. But Polaroid had an adventurous side as well: they made several experimental instant develop cameras that were, uh, quite large, 20x24s and even 40x80s. Those numbers are the size of the exposure plate. In inches. When Elsa Dorfman, one of the few people working with the small number of 20x24s on the regular, took someone’s portrait with this camera, she would always take two exposures. The ones the families and subjects kept was the A-Side. Elsa kept the other one herself; it was just too expensive to chuck. The B-Side.
Errol Morris is a prolific documentary filmmaker and a profound thinker about the nature of the photographic image, so it is only natural that Morris would want to tell the story of a woman whose work is dedicated to a concept of the photograph based on the surface of her subjects rather than attempting to discern their inner lives. When Morris prompts Dorfman: “Do you think the camera tells the truth?” Dorfman answers “Absolutely not!” Morris immediately cuts to a different point in her response, a jarring reminder of his editorial presence. “That’s what I love about it, it’s not real at all,” Elsa says. This is Morris’ aesthetic in a nutshell - reveal the frame around the image to provide context and make you aware of the choices that have been made in the making of that image. Never forget that a photograph is not the truth.
Elsa Dorfman’s story is not solely about her work with the Polaroid 20x24, though that forms the bulk of her career after 1980. Much like a writer is quite simply someone who writes, Dorfman became a photographer when someone handed her a camera. She didn’t get gallery shows and her work didn’t get much traction in the art world but Dorfman pioneered a kind of portraiture that is thoughtful, rivetingly personal, and trenchant for the modern era. She took portraits of the people around her, but she also took portraits of herself, including many portraits of herself naked. “Being comfortable with the camera on myself affected how I put the camera on other people,” she tells Morris. Dorfman describes her concept of her work as very much influenced by Allen “Ginsberg’s poetry,” she says “in the acceptance of detail and everydayness: what you are wearing is ok, who you are is ok, you don’t have to be cosmeticized.” This is an empowering narrative of acceptance and exploration on behalf of herself and her subjects. She tells Morris that she is primarily interested in making people feel better. Take that selfie nags.
The B-Side is a wonderfully engaging conversation with an artist reflecting back on her life with informal presentations of her art in the intimate setting of her home studio. There is a thrill of sadness and wonder that runs through the movie as Elsa reminisces about the people she photographed, including luminaries like Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg and Jorge Luis Borges among many many many others. Morris is best known for his dramatized re-creations of events (The Thin Blue Line and Standard Operating Procedure) and his Interrotron (The Fog of War and The Unknown Known) but he sets all of those aside to let Dorfman and her photography take center stage. Which is not to say that Morris’ camera is absent. Morris and his Director of Photography, Nathan Allan Swingle, explore Elsa’s work and its history with a beautiful collage of B-roll and a fabulous interplay of widescreen and full screen aspect ratios. The presentation of these enormous 20x24 prints is varied and fascinating as they by turns zoom in to fill the full width of the widescreen frame, the prints are such high quality detail that they can take this up close treatment, and then go wide to honor the original composition of the portrait, vertical black bars be damned. Morris and Swingle do this with the old TV footage of Elsa as well, framing the interleaved 4:3 images in the center with a matte that resembles the shape of a cathode ray tube, leaving huge amounts of the frame void, drawing our attention toward Elsa. Morris enlisted Paul Leonard-Morgan to provide the enchanting score, which is soulful, playful, and melancholy all at once, the perfect companion to Dorfman’s rumination on her subjects and her past. “It certainly does something to me when I go through a box,” Elsa says, “[I’m] amazed how young we were, how many of us aren’t still here.” That melancholy feeling never settles into maudlin sentimentality though, even as we experience a sense of loss as Elsa trawls through her old photos.
Elsa Dorfman’s story is riveting in the rich complexity of an artistic life that took some time to develop, no pun intended. As Morris interviews Elsa, the world is running out of the film stock used by the 20x24s (it hasn’t been manufactured since 2009) and Dorfman is at the end of a career spent exploring the surfaces of humanity as they presented themselves before her and the 20x24 and its magical film. There is no overt nostalgia in The B-Side for making photographs the old way, appropriate to a “film” that was almost certainly made in a digital medium; it is simply a celebration of what one artist achieved over a lifetime with that old way, now that it has actually, physically passed. The B-Side is a wonderful film about a delightful, important artist. Like much of Morris’ best work, it leaves you feeling as though you are just beginning a conversation on a complex topic but unlike some of Morris’ heavier work, this is a conversation that you will want to keep having, maybe even for the rest of your life. Elsa Dorfman has no plans or arrangements for the thousands of photographs that she will leave behind, but that is very much in keeping with how she created them in the first place, “inventing a sort of way of living . . . it worked.” We should all be so lucky and so grateful if we manage that feat as well as Elsa Dorfman.
Running Time: 83 minutes