The New York Times
A 2007 self-portrait with the 20-inch-by-24-inch Polaroid camera. Ms. Dorfman now needs a little help wrestling the prints from it, but she still commands her studio with a smile
With Film Supply Dwindling, a Photographer Known for Huge Polaroid Images Is Retiring
By RANDY KENNEDY JAN. 5, 2016
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — To make a good portrait, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once counseled, “you have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” It would be tricky for any portraitist, but especially daunting for Elsa Dorfman. Her camera is taller than she is, weighs as much as an N.F.L. linebacker and looks, from certain vantage points, like a 1970s liquor cabinet.
And yet for more than three decades, Ms. Dorfman has managed to make one of the world’s most unwieldy cameras, and one of the rarest — a 20-inch-by-24-inch Polaroid, one of only five originally made by the company here — into an instrument of such warmth, intimacy and latter-day bohemian spirit that her work has made her into a kind of folk hero in this tightly knit college town.
Hanging on the door of her modest commercial portrait studio in the basement of an office building on Massachusetts Avenue is an embossed resolution from the Cambridge City Council declaring her, more or less, a local landmark. Next to it is Ms. Dorfman’s statement of artistic purpose, to the degree she considers herself an artist. “I do not try to probe or illuminate their souls,” she writes of the thousands of subjects she has photographed, ordinary and quite extraordinary, unknown and widely known (Julia Child, Allen Ginsberg, Errol Morris, Faye Dunaway, Jonathan Richman.) “They embrace their uneven features and the cowlick that won’t stay down. The Japanese have a word for this pose of total naturalness and total attention — ‘Sonomama.’”
Over the last several months, Ms. Dorfman has been making it known to friends that she is trying to adopt something like a pose of total acceptance — she doesn’t know the Japanese word for it, or whether she’ll achieve it — toward retirement, at the age of 78. The main reason is that the film and chemicals she depends upon have not been mass-produced since 2008, when Polaroid, which had gone into bankruptcy years before, stopped making them. And the stockpile to which she has access is diminishing, despite post-Polaroid efforts by enthusiasts to keep the cameras running.
“It’s dwindling, and I’m dwindling,” she said.
But during a recent whirlwind tour of her home, archive, framing shop and the nearby portrait studio — through which more families, newlyweds, babies and recent graduates than she can count have passed — Ms. Dorfman didn’t seem like a woman about to take down her shingle. She stopped moving and telling stories only long enough to rifle through files and film. And while she now needs a little help wrestling the prints from her four-wheeled Buick of a camera, she still commands her studio, wearing a black apron and an implacable smile.
Elsa Dorfman, a Polaroid Portraitist, Is Retiring at 78
Credit Elsa Dorfman
“She ran this camera alone for 30 years, which is kind of insane,” said Nafis Azad, director of photography for the 20x24 Studio, a privately held company that acquired Polaroid film stock and other materials for the big cameras in 2009. “Typically, two or three people run one of these things,” said Mr. Azad, who was in Ms. Dorfman’s studio one December afternoon, assisting with prints so large they felt less like photographs and more like sculptures made from photographic paper.
Ms. Dorfman — who began renting the camera for periods in 1980 and became its sole proprietor mostly, she says, because “I nagged Polaroid and I nagged them and I nagged them” — is among an exclusive group of photographers, including Chuck Close, Mary Ellen Mark, David Levinthal and William Wegman, to spend long periods with the camera, developed by Polaroid’s founder, Edwin H. Land, in the late ’70s to demonstrate the quality of his large-format film.
She came to photography relatively late, almost in her 30s, after a sheltered Boston upbringing that became what can only be described as a Zelig adulthood: a college year in Paris spent in the same hotel as Susan Sontag; a stint waitressing at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, where she was propositioned by the photographer Weegee (“I had no idea who he was!” she says); a job as a secretary for Grove Press in New York during the heyday of its obscenity battles and its ascendancy as a haven for Beat poets, who seemed to gravitate toward Ms. Dorfman like a mother soul.
It was at Grove that she met Ginsberg, who became a lifelong friend despite the fact that she was almost a teetotaler and he, at the time, a walking pharmacy. Their first encounter was inauspicious. “He went by my desk and asked, ‘Where’s the can?’ And I thought, ‘The can? What can?’ I’d never heard that before,” she recalled, rolling her eyes and chuckling.
Ms. Dorfman found New York a bit overwhelming and went back to Boston, where she taught fifth grade and eventually married (her husband, Harvey Silverglate, a prominent criminal-defense lawyer and civil libertarian, is among her most-photographed subjects, along with their son, Isaac.) But her poetry connections led to something else, when Gary Snyder sent her a camera from Japan in 1967 and she began using it, despite not quite having the temperament she thought a real photographer should have. “Except that I was a starer,” she wrote in “Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal,” a book of her black-and-white portraits, published in 1974. “I looked at everything and stared at everyone.”
Some of her pictures are in important public collections, like those of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Portrait Gallery. But Ms. Dorfman sees herself less as an artist (“I never really clicked with anybody in the gallery world”) and more as a member of a confederation of commercial portraitists stretching back almost to photography’s birth. The filmmaker Mr. Morris, a friend and frequent subject, has described her pictures as a “perverse combination of dime store photography and Renaissance portraiture,” and, perhaps more to the point, “the opposite of Diane Arbus, who asks us to deal with our potential alienation from her subject.”
Debby Goldberg, a nonprofit fund-raiser whose family has been photographed by Ms. Dorfman over almost two decades, growing through marriages and births from a group of seven to a sprawling one of 15, said the portraits together feel “like a living organism,” one in which Ms. Dorfman’s near egoless presence somehow inheres. “She’s definitely a character in the photograph itself, even though she’s not visible.”
What retirement will look like for her is anyone’s guess, though those who know her say it will probably mean only fewer pictures per year. During a recent photo session for this article, she received a call from a belly dancer in her 70s wanting her portrait taken, a request Ms. Dorfman could hardly refuse.
The Polaroid, she said, is like an old friend whom she cannot quite imagine not seeing every week. “I fell in love with it. It’s hard to say why. It’s like trying to describe why you fell in love with someone. You can list all the qualities, but you can’t really say why.”
A version of this article appears in print on January 6, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition