After profiling major figures such as Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld and creating highly acclaimed documentaries including Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, and The Fog of War, Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris turns his attention to his longtime friend: portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman who, for more than 35 years, has been creating stunning large-format photos of people in her unusual studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sitting for her larger-than-life Polaroid Land 20×24 camera, Dorfman’s subjects have included Beat poets, rock stars, Harvard notables, everyday folks, and Morris himself. In this delightful and engaging film, Dorman describes her love affair with the large-format medium and the unique style of her work. She has no interest in plumbing the depths of her subject’s souls or “to take more than they’re willing to give.” Instead, she and her camera celebrate the people who step into her studio — their surface appearances, personalities, idiosyncrasies, and everyday triumphs. “Life,” Dorfman says, “is hard enough. You don’t need to walk around with a picture of it.” I sat down with Errol Morris to discuss his loving portrait of this very unique artist.
Danny Miller: I was so fascinated by Elsa Dorfman and her incredible work. When you started taking to her about making this documentary, did you have a feeling what the final film would be like? Do you ever know at the beginning whether you actually have a film?
Errol Morris: No, not really. All I knew was that Elsa is an extraordinary person. But, I aways wonder — will I really be able to capture the person, especially someone like Elsa who I knew so well. Could I make her come alive? This was a question with Elsa, it was a question with all the people I’ve worked with. Will I be able to capture something?
So in the back of your head there’s an option that you might decide at some point that no, it’s not going to work as a full-length film?
Oh, sure, there’s always that option. I’ve done a number of interviews with people over the years where I didn’t want to continue so I just put it on a shelf and move on. That’s happened a fair number of times. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
Of course, with someone like Robert McNamara, even if the interview isn’t working out as you’d hoped, that itself would be really interesting.
Yeah — with McNamara, it was a struggle just getting him to do it. He tried to cancel a number of times and then he told me he’d only give me five minutes. After 10 minutes he said, “Okay, I’ll give you another 10 minutes,” and then he ended up doing 20-plus hours with us. But that was a very different kind of deal!
Did you feel any special challenges with Elsa because you already knew her so well?
No, I found that to be a great benefit — her willingness to share all of the material in her archives and to let us dig through all kinds of stuff. We found in her phone machine tapes the last phone call that Allen Ginsberg made to Elsa, she didn’t even know she had it. We also found this wonderful film in a drawer of Elsa rollerskating — it was great having all that access.
It definitely feels like she hasn’t gotten a fair shake in the photography world. And yet she remains so grounded and unassuming — it doesn’t seem like she has any bitterness about it.
It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it? She’s the most unpretentious person I know and yet she’s really profound. She’s so gifted and yes, she never really got her due as a photographer but kept making great photographs one after the other, year after year after year. She’s very inspiring.
I love the whole concept of the “B” side of the photos — that she’d take two of these large-format Polaroids and let the client pick which one they wanted and she’d keep the other one. Having seen many of the originals, would you say that the two photographs are often very different?
Well, obviously they are different to the people who are paying for them. For me, and for Elsa, we both feel that many of the “B side” photographs were actually better than the photographs that the client picked.
Oh, interesting. I can see how the more “imperfect” ones might be more appealing to her because they convey more.
Exactly, you feel that the people have been captured more completely than, perhaps, the ones that are more cosmetically perfect. But in all her photographs, Elsa is capturing so much. One of the things that’s so interesting about the work is the way photography plays with memory and time in ways that are endlessly mysterious. Elsa says that she’s nailing down the “now” and that the now is very fleeting, and this is true.
I assume when people go to her for a portrait, they know they’re not going to get something very traditional.
I think so. Recently she refused to take someone’s portrait because they were all dressed up. She said, “I don’t do those kind of photographs!”
Having been in those sessions, does she have a particularly unusual manner of putting people at ease?
She talks to people, she relates to people, she brings you into her world. She’s funny, she’s engaging, she’s smart — the experience of having a photo taken by Elsa is the experience of coming to love Elsa. It’s impossible for me to even think of the photographs independent of that. For me, it’s all about going to her studio and talking to her and having her talk to you.
Did it take any convincing on your part to get her to agree to be the subject of a documentary?
Oh, not at all. We had talked about it for a long time, she just didn’t really believe that I was going to go through with it. But she was always cooperative and excited about my doing it. And she loves the film. We had a screening last week in New York and Elsa and I were on stage afterwards and she was really bubbling with excitement. She loves watching and taking about the movie. It’s incredibly heartwarming for me that I could give this to her — she so enjoys the attention that she’s getting!
And the film will just make more people clamor for her photographs.
Yes, I think that is already happening. But, to be honest, she’s not that interested in taking photographs at this point. She’ll do it, but she’s raised her prices astronomically! We took the whole huge camera set-up to Telluride (it takes four people along with Elsa to manipulate that camer) and she took around 70 large-format Polaroids of people at the festival.
Those lucky people! As such a gifted filmmaker yourself, would you say that she just has an innate eye for detail? Or is it more about her relationship with her subjects?
It’s all of that. Particularly in photography, the ability to relate to the people you’re shooting, the nature of that connection is critically important. It’s a mysterious deal, and it has a lot to do with friendship. This movie, in a way, is an elegy to the loss of many things, the loss of an art form which has been a major part of her life, the loss of a number of people whom she truly loved, Ginsberg being an example, and the fact that she carries on.
I love the way that you have captured such a broad range of people in your films, including important figures in Washington. Can you imagine one day doing a film about Trump or the people in his administration?
The whole administration is so intensely distasteful. The un-genuineness of it all, I’m repelled on so many levels. To me the most frightening and repellent thing is the disregard for truth, almost contempt for rationality itself. It’s frightening. I actually have filmed Donald Trump — about 15 years ago, a piece about the movie Citizen Kane that I did with him. You can find it online.
Would you say you have to identify with your subjects in some way in order to shoot them?
I used to say that I had to like someone in order to film them. Donald Rumsfeld came the closest to testing that. I did like McNamara, but I found Rumsfeld really closed off from everything, just a kind of obduracy and defiance. There was something incredibly sad about someone who has lived their entire life just posturing. There’s very little genuine there except for the desire to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.” That’s how I view Trump and his administration.
Which is the polar opposite of Elsa who is so incredibly genuine and lives in the moment. You can see that her connection with others is what keeps her going.
After making the movie, I’ve often thought about what remains at the end of everything. Your archive might vanish, many of the people you know will die, but you still have to have love and friendship — those are the basic ingredients of life. I really value my friendship with Elsa, I’ve learned a lot from her as a person and as an artist.