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Elsa Dorfman, Me and my Camera, September 15, 1986. Courtesy: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Elsa Dorfman (1937–2020)

American portraitist Elsa Dorfman, known for her intimate large-format Polaroids of friends, artists, celebrities, and herself, has died at age eighty-three from kidney failure, the Boston Globe reports. Dorfman is perhaps the photographer most associated with Polaroid’s hulking 20 x 24 camera, a discontinued contraption weighing more than two hundred pounds that produces richly detailed prints measuring around two feet square. Dorfman was given a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, earlier this year, and is the subject of Errol Morris’s documentary The B-Side (2016), released to coincide with her retirement. A beloved fixture in her native Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dorfman photographed thousands of people in her studio, from well-known figures—including Bob Dylan, Anaïs Nin, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Creeley—to terminally ill cancer patients and people living with AIDS. “I do not try to probe or illuminate their souls,” the artist said of those she portrayed. “My subjects are people who accept themselves. They realize that the camera can be both healing and celebratory. They stand in front of my camera and let themselves be, just as they are.”

Dorfman was born in 1937 in Cambridge. After moving to New York City in 1959 to work at the radical Grove Press, she soon decided to return to her hometown, where she pursued a master’s degree, taught elementary school, and organized a Beat poetry-reading circuit out of a studio apartment. Her career as an artist began in the darkroom of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, which was then helming an initiative to reimagine elementary teachers’ science curricula (the same initiative led to Berenice Abbot’s two-year foray into physics photography). She bought her first camera in 1967, and in 1974, she published Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal, a photographic record of her circle and a landmark in feminist and American photography. The book featured many self-portraits, as well as tender shots of Allen Ginsberg, a lifelong friend and muse, and prominent civil rights lawyer Harry A. Silvergate, whom she would later marry. Dorfman is survived by Silvergate and their son Isaac, both among her most-photographed subjects.

Dorfman turned to Polaroid in the 1980s, after convincing the Cambridge company to lease her one of only six in total of the unwieldy 20 x 24 cameras, developed the previous decade and used at length by an exclusive niche of portraitists, including Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, William Wegman, and Mary Ellen Mark. “Working the darkroom, you have to be a man with a wife, or a woman without a family,” she said, explaining her preference for instant photography. “It’s domestic in a way. It’s washing, it’s stirring, it’s cooking, it’s like being a chef, and it’s thankless.” Dorfman, who posed both loved ones and clients against a white backdrop, chose to emphasize the physicality of her medium, leaving signs of distress (“tire marks”) and handwriting her captions at the bottom of each frame in india ink. Her work resides in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Portrait Gallery; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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