The latest work from master documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) is meant to mark the end of an era of sorts. Specifically, it’s the end of the career of photographer Elsa Dorfman, who from 1965 until 2016 took portraits of everyone from her immediate family to those on the forefront of the beat poet movement, including her great friend Allen Ginsberg. But in 1980, Dorfman, who had always been a fan of Polaroid cameras, discovered the company’s 20×24 camera that took mini-poster-sized images with a remarkable amount of detail and clarity. She began to take thousands of photos using this format in her Cambridge, Mass., studio, and The B-Side provides a wonderful account of her life and career that is as delicate as the paper on which her photos are printed.
The film’s title comes from her practice of always taking two images of her paying clients—the one the subjects choose is the A-Side, while the reject (which she keeps) is the B-Side, and is quite often the image she prefers for whatever flaw the client may have seen in it. Director Morris foregoes the usually style of having his subject speak directly to a monitor with his face on it, making it far easier to Dorfman to riffle through box after oversized box of photos, carefully packed away, many of which she hasn’t laid eyes on in decades.
Her subjects have included musicians like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Jonathan Richman, as well as local Harvard elite, whom she befriended over the years. The B-Side feels like an intimate viewing reception, as the subject tells story after story as she moves through each image. She also recalls the shameless and heartbreaking way that Polaroid was sold to a company that had no interest in continuing to make its landmark film stock or cameras, and she knew that her days using them were limited. She saw it as her mission to capture something essential about each subject, even if they were paying customers, and as we flip through hundreds of different images, we suss out little bits of information about the subjects, even if the image is simply a very expensive family portrait, with a sea of smiling faces.
Dorfman is open and self-reflexive about her work, her access to and interactions with this colony of esteemed writers, and her relationship with her husband and son, who were some of her favorite portrait subjects. The film doesn’t linger more than it needs to (the running time is under 80 minutes), and it feels like a slightly smaller-scale, less-probing version of what Morris does best. But it’s Dorfman’s work that is the real focal point of the film, and there’s enough of that featured here to form a complete portrait of a gifted, introspective artist.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.