Looking to do something different, Errol Morris has stowed the Interrotron and made a biographical documentary about one of his good friends. After years of incisive probes into troubled minds and complex politics, this makes for a surprising but not unwelcome change of pace. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is a small film whose gentleness belies an intelligent curiosity about different ways of seeing, and how both photography specifically and art in general approach their subjects.
Elsa Dorfman has made a name for herself in the unusual field of Polaroid portraiture. The owner of a rare large-format instant camera, she’s spent decades perfecting the art of taking 20 x 24 Polaroids in her Massachusetts studio. Watching Dorfman’s unwieldy contraption at work printing out an enormous photo right after she takes it is fascinating — and that’s before the film introduces a room-sized camera that can take 30 x 70 pictures (basically life-sized portraits). But of course, the collapse of the Polaroid Corporation in 2008 means no more instant film, and Dorfman has decided to retire. The B-Side is her reflection on her life’s work, almost a fine coffee table art book in cinematic form.
Although a better way to put it is that this film feels like an extended episode of Morris’s TV series First Person, which found a variety of interesting people to profile. Or, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that Morris has a special gift for making absolutely anyone into a riveting character. Though most of The B-Side is shot in Dorfman’s storage room, tracking her as she pulls one portrait after another from her library of filing cabinets, the camera finds new ways to observe her. In fact, the doc begins fairly sedate, stylistically speaking, but becomes more adventurous as it goes. It’s as if the film is energized by learning more about Dorfman’s technique and philosophy. Dorfman herself claims that she prefers to photograph her subjects on a surface level and not to “see their souls,” and so the lack of the Interrotron and focus on craft over psychology makes sense.
The fact that Morris made a small film about a friend and turned her into a sort of archetypical vector for musings on art and life is a testament to his skill. In her reminiscing over, among other things, her history of taking portraits of her family and herself, her friendship with Allen Ginsberg and the process of taking large-format Polaroids, the viewer is drawn a nuanced survey of artistry as a long-term evolution tied more to diligence than tortured creative passion. And the link between Dorfman’s retirement and the end of Polaroid — a somber symbol of the ongoing death of analog technology — lets the film bow out with a melancholy, but unsentimental, feeling. The unassuming Dorfman makes a better case for the format than a thousand hipsters, and Morris demonstrates that even at his most relaxed, he’s inspired.