fb-pixel

Elsa Dorfman, photographer whose distinctive portraits illuminated her subjects and herself, dies at 83

Ms. Dorfman, photographed at her Cambridge home on Feb. 4, 2020.
Ms. Dorfman, photographed at her Cambridge home on Feb. 4, 2020.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

Elsa Dorfman, whose large-format Polaroid color portraits made her famous in the world of photography, and whose ebullient personality made her famous in the world of Cambridge, died Saturday at her Cambridge home. She was 83.

According to her husband, the civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, the cause of death was kidney failure.

Ms. Dorfman is likely the only artist to have work in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, National Portrait Gallery, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art who’s also twice had the Cambridge City Council pass resolutions in her honor, in 1998 and 2014.

She became even more famous in 2017, with the release of Errol Morris’s documentary about her, “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography.”

Advertisement



“A fabulous friend and artist,” Morris wrote in an e-mail on Saturday. “It’s hard even to imagine the world without her in it."

In his Boston Globe review of “The B-Side,” Ty Burr wrote that Ms. Dorfman “seems to instinctively understand photography’s knack for simply snagging a moment, and she has gradually extended that moment — that nanosecond of seeing — from herself to her family to a community at large. A Dorfman portrait may be the closest one can come to an embrace from your Nana: It’s fast and fierce and loving and uncritical, and the perfume lingers long after the moment is gone.”

Or as Ms. Dorfman says in the documentary: “I somehow have this misguided therapeutic idea that it’s my role in the universe to make people feel better.”

Earlier this year, the MFA mounted an exhibition of self-portraits, “Elsa Dorfman: Me and My Camera."

Ms. Dorfman's "My third day with the 20x24," from 1987.
Ms. Dorfman's "My third day with the 20x24," from 1987.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Three parts earth mother to two parts riot grrrl (or perhaps the other way around), Ms. Dorfman cut a memorable figure. Her beaming moon face, set off by glasses and center-parted hair, was almost as distinctive as her don’t-try-this-at-home fashion sense. Jumpers and running shoes? Of course. Polka dots and stripes? On occasion.

Advertisement



In conversation, Ms. Dorfman tended to be animated and voluble. Expressing agreement, she didn’t just say “right.” She would say “Right, right, right, right, right.” Expressing disagreement, something she did less often but was no less capable of, she would offer a slightly shrieky laugh before giving the other person a piece of her mind. It was a mind much given to digression. Ms. Dorfman would often begin sentences with “So, anyhow,” picking up the thread of a happily wayward thought.

Ms. Dorfman’s outsize personality matched the scale of the refrigerator-size Polaroid 20-by-24 camera that for many years dominated her studio in the basement of an office building between Harvard and Central squares.

The camera, one of only six in existence, weighs close to 240 pounds. Each photographic print is nearly 2 feet square. Ms. Dorfman likened extracting one from the camera to delivering a baby.

“I somehow have this misguided therapeutic idea that it’s my role in the universe to make people feel better,'' said Ms. Dorfman, with her camera in 2002.
“I somehow have this misguided therapeutic idea that it’s my role in the universe to make people feel better,'' said Ms. Dorfman, with her camera in 2002.David L. Ryan/Globe staff

Several photographers have made extensive use of the 20-by-24 Polaroid camera, including Mary Ellen Mark, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, William Wegman, and Chuck Close. None has been as associated with it as much as Ms. Dorfman.

Like normal-size Polaroid instant cameras, the 20-by-24 makes a unique print, developed within the camera and then extruded from it. The resulting image is extremely detailed, with notably full, rich colors.

Ms. Dorfman’s work has a distinctive look. She would use a white background, include white borders, and leave in the black roller lines. With characteristic lack of pretension, she referred to them as “tire marks.” The lines are left by the rollers inside the camera, which break the chemical pods used in developing the image.

Advertisement



Finally, using a steel-nib pen dipped in black India ink, Ms. Dorfman would write a caption on the bottom border and sign the image in her distinctive cursive. She started doing that with her photographs well before she began using the 20-by-24 camera, in 1980.

Ms. Dorfman’s work has always included text with image. Asked in a 2017 Globe interview if she had had youthful ambitions of being a photographer, she exclaimed, “Not a photographer, a writer!” Many of her closest friends were writers, poets especially, and much of her early work consisted of portraits of authors.

Foremost among these friends was the poet Allen Ginsberg. Ms. Dorfman liked to say that when in doubt she would ask herself, “What would Allen do?” The exchange of influence worked both ways. When Ginsberg seriously took up photography, he adopted Ms. Dorfman’s practice, writing a caption and putting his signature on the print’s border.

Ms. Dorfman's Polaroid image of her with Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg.
Ms. Dorfman's Polaroid image of her with Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg. Elsa Dorfman/courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The first 20-by-24 photograph Ms. Dorfman took was a dual portrait of Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky. It was a fitting start. Ginsberg and Orlovsky were partners, and Ms. Dorfman’s family portraits are her most celebrated work. As distinctive as the look of Ms. Dorfman’s big Polaroids is, their consistent emotional fullness and warmth may be even more unmistakable.

Advertisement



Ms. Dorfman originally charged $50 for a portrait sitting. By the time she stopped, around 2015, she was getting $5,000. On average, she’d do about 60 portraits annually. “I never did more than 80 a year,” she said. “It’s not a humongous number. The impact, in a way, was greater than the number.”

The title of Morris’s documentary comes from Ms. Dorfman’s practice of offering her subjects a choice of two prints. She would keep the one they didn’t take. She long thought of gathering her family portraits into a book. Since the families have the official print, the images in the book would be the alternates. Ms. Dorfman mentioned this to a sitter. “Oh, like the B-sides,” he said, the term used for the flip side of 45 rpm recordings. “I’m really a B-side person,” she said with a laugh in that interview.

The oldest of three sisters, Elsa Susan Dorfman was born on April 26, 1937, in Cambridge. She grew up in Roxbury and Newton. Her father, Arthur Dorfman, was a produce buyer for the Stop & Shop grocery chain. Her mother, Elaine (Kovitz) Dorfman, was a homemaker.

Ms. Dorfman majored in French literature at Tufts University, graduating in 1959. Moving to New York after graduation, she got a secretarial job at the publishing house Grove Press. That’s where she met Ginsberg, as well as the poets Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan, and the photographer Robert Frank.

Advertisement



“I didn’t grow up with an idea of possibility,” Ms. Dorfman said in that 2017 interview. “So I was lucky I ran into the people I did.”

It was not Ms. Dorfman’s first brush with fame. During a junior year abroad, she worked at the 1958 World’s Fair, in Brussels. The crime photographer Weegee tried to pick her up. After that, living in Paris, she became friends with Susan Sontag, who was staying in the same student hotel. “Her French was so much better than mine,” Ms. Dorfman later recalled.

Moving back to Boston, Ms. Dorfman got a master’s in elementary education from Boston College and taught fifth grade for a year in Concord. One of the more amusing moments in “The B-Side” comes when she recalls a sympathetic parent telling her, “You don’t really belong here.”

Ms. Dorfman felt the same way. At the parent’s suggestion, she got a job in the science department at Education Development Center, in Waltham. Serendipity struck. She was handed a camera, a Hasselblad, and put to work in the darkroom. Now, at 28, she declared herself a photographer.

Writer friends asked her to take their photograph. Grove used one of her portraits on the cover of an Olson essay collection. The photograph was her first professional sale.

In 1967, Ms. Dorfman met her future husband, Harvey Silverglate. He had been the defense attorney in a drug trial. Ms. Dorfman thought the case had the makings of a book and sought him out. At the end of that initial meeting, he said she should take a portrait of him and his brother to give to their mother. They married in 1976.

In 1971, Ms. Dorfman had an exhibition at Boston City Hall. No one had consulted with the mayor, Kevin White, who’d planned on holding a banquet for visiting mayors in that space. He ordered the photographs taken down. “You look cute when you’re angry, my dear,” he told a furious Ms. Dorfman, “but it’s my City Hall. If they were Rembrandts, and I wanted them down, they’d come down.”

Ms. Dorfman began selling her black-and-white 35mm photographs from a grocery cart in Harvard Square. Charging $2.50 a print, she took in $700 during the 1973 holiday season. “Wow, was it cold out there,” she recalled in 2017. “I loved coming home and counting the cash.”

A fellowship at Radcliffe College’s Bunting Institute led to “Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal” (1974). Ms. Dorfman was the author of two other books: “No Hair Day” (2003), about breast-cancer patients, and “En Famille” (1999), a collaboration with her Grove Press friend Creeley.

Ms. Dorfman customarily ended her e-mails with one word: “Onward.” That word had been Creeley’s standard farewell. In tribute, Ms. Dorfman adopted it after the poet’s death. If she forgot to include it, she’d immediately send another e-mail that did. Her doing so said as much about her own attitude toward life as it did about her devotion to Creeley.

Ms. Dorfman and her husband, Harvey Silverglate, above their arbor of wisteria at their home in Cambridge.
Ms. Dorfman and her husband, Harvey Silverglate, above their arbor of wisteria at their home in Cambridge.Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

Asked in 2017 what she was proudest of, Ms. Dorfman gave a long pause before answering.

“I’m proudest of the fact that I made a life for myself. I think it’s a miracle. It’s a big thank you to a lot of people I came across. What enormous luck, because there are so many people who were more talented than I was who somehow got lost along the way. So I really feel lucky, and I was lucky in the people I met. . . . Meeting Harvey. I mean, there was no script!”

In addition to her husband, she leaves a son, Isaac, of New York; two sisters, Sandra, of Ashland, and Jane Steele, of Middlebury, Vt.; and two grandchildren.

Memorial services are planned for New York and Cambridge later this year.



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.