The Underside Of What Matters

Errol Morris’s new documentary is a touching portrait of photographer Elsa Dorfman


Errol Morris, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, 2016, film still. Courtesy: Fourth Floor Productions and Moxie Pictures

Errol Morris, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, 2016, film still. Courtesy: Fourth Floor Productions and Moxie Pictures

Errol Morris’s new documentary, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, is not as eviscerating as his classic takes on politics, The Fog of War (2003) or The Unknown Known (2013). But whereas in The Unknown Known Morris was needlessly repetitive, recycling the same images throughout, perhaps due to his taking on – once again, a political theme – he now delivers a refreshingly intimate portrait of his old friend. Elsa Dorfman’s work is ephemeral yet grand: using a giant 20” x 24” camera, that is now discontinued, Dorfman has produced some of the world’s largest Polaroid images, showing that unwieldy technology does not need to be limiting when used imaginatively.

The B-Side wouldn’t be a Morris film if it did not pose some essential questions. ‘Does a photograph tell the truth?’ asks Dorfman. ‘Not at all. That’s why I like it.’ Perhaps Dorfman and Donald Rumsfeld, whose equivocation was the subject The Unknown Known, have something in common. Both know that media can deceive. ‘It’s all about a unique encounter,’ Dorfman says. The camera can only show what the subject gives it, in that one instant.

Morris’s 2011 book, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, included rigorous investigation. The B-Side strikes a more earnest note: Dorfman’s congeniality belies how formidable she is. Firstly, there are the stunning portraits she took for more than 30 years of literati, from Allen Ginsburg and W. H. Auden to Anne Sexton and Jorge Luis Borges. Then there are the black and white images that Dorfman, ‘a good Jewish girl,’ took of herself nude. Their directness is a nice contrast to Ginsberg’s who was more consciously performative.

In a stroke of genius, Morris plays the messages that were left on Dorfman’s machine, right before, and immediately after, Ginsburg’s death. Since so much of her work was devoted to the Beat poet, this gesture creates a sense of life, and art, coming full circle. This is perhaps the most prescient lesson of The B-Side: the technology that we took for granted, relinquishes its beauty and faces extinction.

‘Maybe that’s the meaning of the photograph,’ Dorfman says. ‘When someone dies.’ Dorfman, who has retired, must know this well. Many faces she has immortalized are no longer with us.

Ela Bittencourt works as a critic and curator in the United States and Latin America. She writes for publications such as Art in America, Film Comment, frieze and the Village Voice and runs a film site, Lyssaria.

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