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Elsa Dorfman looks back at 50 years on both sides of the camera

Beloved for her big, bright portraits of celebrities and friends, the photographer arrives at the MFA with herself in the frame

Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman was photographed in her Cambridge home this week. Taking self-portraits was "convenient" and "fun," she said.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Elsa Dorfman had a cold, she apologized, forgoing a handshake for a wave. “I’m sorry, that’s not very me,” she said, sniffling and nestling into the roll-armed settee in her Cambridge parlour where her dear friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg, slept on his many visits from New York, years ago.

Not very her? No, indeed. If there’s a warmer, more ease-setting person than Dorfman, could he or she please come forward and save us all now? It’s been more than 50 years since Dorfman started taking pictures of people, from the very famous to the folks down the street. A certain mind-set has always applied. “Seeing you for the first time, I recognized you without the slightest hesitation," she once wrote, quoting the French surrealist André Breton. What for Breton was a riddle is, for Dorfman, a way of being. She has a gift for embracing everyone with the affection of an old friend. It’s also her gift to the world.


“My work is very social,” she said. In an old TV clip excavated for “The B-Side,” her friend and neighbor Errol Morris’s 2017 documentary about her life and work, Dorfman plucks the word “affection” in much the same way. Looking around her house, it takes not a moment to see what she means. In the tall, slim Victorian, tenderness pervades. Childhood drawings and papier-mâché dragons by her son Isaac (now 43) are crammed in alongside photos of friends and family, almost all taken by Dorfman herself. As we chat, Harvey Silverglate, the well-known criminal lawyer and Dorfman’s husband of 44 years, tacks another item to what must be the last available inches of wall space. It’s a notice for a long-ago reading by the poet Robert Creeley, another dear friend. Together, he and Dorfman made the 1999 book “En Famille” — his verse, her pictures, a slim volume of joy.

You can see it in “En Famille,” just as you can in her pictures of Clint Eastwood, Julia Child, or friends and family — that thing a Dorfman portrait always seems to have. It’s like lightning in a bottle — small snippets of elation conjured for her lens. When I suggested that not everyone loves to have their picture taken, Dorfman’s eyes brightened, incredulous. She let loose her infectious laugh. “Really?” she said, as though I just told her the sky is orange. “I could hardly even imagine!” That’s because she’s Elsa Dorfman, and unease is a problem she solves for the rest of us.


Dorfman titled this image "Me, with Peter and Allen During Their Photo Session. Isaac's Amaryllis in Bloom From Studio Light."Elsa Dorfman/courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“That’s what she does: She removes people’s shields,” said Anne Havinga, chair of the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, where an exhibition of Dorfman’s self-portraits opens Feb. 8. “When people did a photo session with her, it was partly for the joy of the moment — the joy of just being with her.”

Dorfman’s 82 now — “make sure you put that in,” she said, jabbing a finger toward my notebook; “Isn’t that just so old? It just blows my mind” — and all but retired. (“As of January 2019, Elsa Dorfman is no longer taking portraits,” her website says.) Her big camera, a legendary large-format Polaroid the size of a pizza oven, is in storage; her studio, where she spent virtually every day for more than 30 years, is shut down. A self-portrait, made early last year, was a final act for her and the camera both.


Now her close friend and neighbor Margot Kempers is helping to sort and preserve more than 50 years worth of work: thousands of black-and-white negatives in steel cabinets downstairs, stacks of her signature 20-by-24 Polaroid portraits kept in flat file drawers in her framing studio out back. The process has yielded more than a little nostalgia. “Oh look, another Allen!” Kempers said, feigning surprise as she lifted a sheet of protective Mylar to reveal one of Dorfman’s many dozens of Ginsberg portraits. No matter how many times she did it — pulling huge bolts of film from the Polaroid’s maw and peeling back the negative to watch the picture emerge before her eyes — she always said the same thing: “‘Look, it’s a miracle!’” Kempers laughed, in her best Dorfman-ese.

The MFA show is called “Elsa Dorfman: Me and My Camera,” and it features an array of self-portraits on that big, bright Polaroid paper (there’s also a small selection of black and whites pulled from her “Housebook” series of intimate pictures of friends and family). The show folds into MFA’s portraiture series, one of its 150th anniversary themes. “Me and My Camera” precedes by a few weeks an exhibition of self-portraits by the renowned British painter Lucian Freud. But there’s a clear balance being struck — Freud all dour affect, Dorfman sweetness and light. “Oh, I could never do something like that,” she said, looking at the brooding Freud painting that shares a page in the MFA’s brochure with a 1986 photo of her bright and sunny self, posed next to her great big Polaroid.


Elsa Dorfman's "Me and My Camera" from 1986.© Elsa Dorfman, 2013, all rights reserved; Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It’s a moment to reflect. Dorfman spent countless hours capturing her subjects as their best selves. Given her irrepressibility, doing herself the same honor was to be expected: There she is, in 1968, smiling slyly in the mirror in a polka-dot fur, camera pressed to her eye (“Me in My New Coat"). Or there, sitting on the “Ginsberg couch,” as it came to be known, shutter release cord in hand (“Self-Portrait,” 1973).

But don’t forget the title: “Me and My Camera” pays homage to both a local legend — born in Cambridge, Dorfman’s as home-grown as they get; one call out to her husband “Hah-vey” seals it — and the very specific machine with which that legend was built. “Her pictures are really celebratory, both of the medium and the person she’s photographing,” Havinga said. “She was the only photographer in the world who managed to get a 20-by-24 camera into her own studio. She looms larger than life because of it.”

There’s no separating Dorfman from the Polaroid, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. (Pinned to the living room door is a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” cartoon featuring Dorfman and her magical machine; “The BIG Picture!” it reads.) The moment they met, in 1981, was love at first sight. Her career was their career, an equal partnership. The Polaroid was like a beloved pet (“or a favorite child,” Silverglate joked, noting that Isaac is an only child). Only five are known to exist, mostly in places like MIT. Made by Polaroid as a showpiece for special events, Dorfman’s is the only one in private hands. (“I knew somebody,” she said, coyly, when asked how she managed to get the camera and keep it.)


Of course she wanted to hold onto it. Just look at what the camera can do: deep, saturated colors that look almost tangible, a richness of flesh and tone. A riveting picture of the playwright William Alfred and the actress Faye Dunaway is disarmingly crisp and frank. A lush portrait of musician Jonathan Richman is bathed in a womblike environment of deep crimson. (Dorfman often joked that pulling pictures from the Polaroid, on her knees, was a lot like midwifery.) The camera’s inherent warmth coupled with Dorfman’s — they were made for each other.

About taking her own picture, she’s outwardly nonplussed. “It was convenient!” she blurted. “You know — you’re bored, you’re home alone, you want to test a light. They always came from a purely practical place.” She paused. “And,” she added, “it was fun.”

At the MFA, there’s a clear giddiness to “My Third Day With the 20 x 24,” a title she wrote on the bottom of the picture with India ink. It captures Dorfman glowing in front of the lens in 1981, shutter release in hand, cocooned in bright red. “Me and My Camera,” from 1986, a picture of Dorfman cuddled up to the camera like a cowboy might a beloved horse, is undiluted glee. As years passed, the Polaroid became part of the family: There are pictures of Dorfman and Silverglate and Isaac with black balloons, marking her birthdays. (Silverglate, who is “not a birthday guy,” acquiesced to her ebullient marking of the occasion in his own way, Dorfman said.)

Elsa Dorfman's "On my 51st birthday" from 1988.Elsa Dorfman (custom credit)/Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But is it all really so uncomplicated? In “I’m 59. Yesterday I was 40,” Dorfman is buried under a clutch of black balloons, a red one on top. “I’m Sixty. Allen’s Dead,” is Dorfman in 1997, deep in the frame, made small, with black balloons hovering over her nude form (Ginsberg, who had just died of cancer, was ever eager to shed his clothes for her lens).

“It’s her way of defying the aging process,” Silverglate told me. All over the walls of their home are huge pictures — Dorfman and Silverglate as young parents, middle-aged, in their golden years. “But I also think it’s about mortality. You’re looking at your younger self all the time. It’s just something I’m constantly aware of.”

Dorfman, for her part, demurred. “If I thought about it that much, I’d probably think myself right out the door," she said with a laugh. Maybe a passage from one of her many lovely essays applies: “For me the key word is ‘apparently,’” she once wrote. “All I hope my photographs say is this person lives and this person was here.”


At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through June 21. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed a Feb. 16 event with Dorfman at the Museum of Fine Arts. That event is not open to the public.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.