By Jay Kuehner
As a portrait of a portrait artist, Errol Morris’ framing of Elsa Dorfman is scaled with commensurately intimate and life-sized means, perhaps surprisingly given the director’s predilection for the everyday uncanny (you’d suspect Diane Arbus to be the more fitting subject). Morris drops in on Dorfman’s studio for a guided tour of the photographer’s archives and the affable and modest “Ellie” obliges with candid, almost self-effacing repartee. More fog on lens than fog of war, the film traces Dorfman’s almost accidental baptism in photography by way of a loaned Hasselblad and immersion in NY’s East Village bohemia that yielded—easy to say in hindsight—iconic portraits of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Success led to an indelible assignation with one of Polaroid’s 20×24 instant cameras, a case of the artist finding her tool and the tool finding its artist.
The twist here for Morris may be that, taking a cue from Dorfman’s direct approach, there is no twist at all, other than that of time itself. He is possessed by a certain “fugitive beauty” of her unrepeatable images, and of the B-side nature of the prints that went technically awry or weren’t chosen by her clients. There may be no essential “truth” to Dorfman’s documentation, as so many takes and contact sheets reveal multiple untold histories, but there is a poetic truth to her boldly banal portraits, family secrets caught in downcast eyes or crooked smiles. Screen tests without Warhol’s pretension and Americana absent Eggleston’s lyricism, Dorfman’s portraits are also conspicuously blank landscapes, white backdrops that leave the colouring to the viewer.
If for Dorfman the camera is a mere tool—a spoon but not the soup—her photographs embody, in more lay terms, Benjamin’s formulation that “the manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.” In her own words, “It doesn’t matter how you try to nail down the now, the now is really beyond you.” There’s delight in the faded things, share Dorfman and Morris (by way of Jonathan Richman)—a mystery not of high heels, or eye shadow.