An Interview With Elsa Dorfman

It would be appropriate to call Elsa Dorfman a poet with a camera, not only because her portraits produced with a Polaroid 20×24 camera are lyrical but because this form of literary expression has been integral to her career.

Dorfman moved from the Boston suburbs to New York in 1959 with dreams of being a writer. Economic realities came first and through an employment agency she landed a secretarial position at Grove Press. One of her jobs was to arrange readings for poets including Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Denise Levertov, Joel Oppenheimer and Edward Field. After returning to New England, a circuitous path would lead her back to the who’s-who of post-modern poetry, only this time it would be with camera in hand.

In 1980 she began shooting with the Polaroid 20×24 camera, exposing an estimated 4,000 sheets to date, with subjects ranging in age from 14 days to 94 years, and an eclectic group of sitters including four brides, six pregnant women, five sets of identical twins, three triplets, seven clowns, one transvestite, five rock and roll stars, two Pulitzer Prize winners, eight people who knew they were close to death and a couple celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary. Her camera is one of the five original 20x24s built by Polaroid in the late 1970s.

In 2008, Polaroid announced it would cease production of all instant film. Companies such as the Impossible Project, Mammoth Camera and the 20×24 Studio are keeping instant film alive and well. They are the lifelines that have kept photographers such as Dorfman focused on their work rather than scrambling for the material to expose their subject matter onto.

DigitalPhoto Pro: You’ve called yourself a starer. Has it ever gotten you into trouble and how does this play into your photography?

Elsa Dorfman: For one thing, I have worn glasses since I was four, so probably before that age I had trouble seeing, and had to stare. Also, I grew up in a busy household, always crowded with lots of relatives, and to make sense of it all, I had to stare. I had to figure out who belonged to whom and what was going on. I think intuitively I was trying to catch the narrative. It has never gotten me in trouble, or maybe I got in trouble and didn’t even realize it…I was that kind of kid. I have a granddaughter now who is four and a half and she’s a starer. I think it is part inclination, part attraction, part curiosity. That aspect of her seems very familiar to me. I am also the kind of person who can follow a conversation from two tables away at a restaurant. I am not exactly eavesdropping, but I kind of follow the vibes. I guess a playwright does the same thing. It plays into my photography on an intuitive level. It probably has something to do with my sense of anticipation.

DPP: That kind of sensitivity can be very useful in a portrait session in capturing just the right look at the decisive moment. How did you get some of the greatest poets of the second half of the 20th century, including Allen Ginsberg and Joel Oppenheimer, in front of your lens?

ED: I am so glad you mentioned Joel in the same breath as Allen. I love both of their works. Right out of college in 1959 I got a job as a Girl Friday at Grove Press. It was a small office and each person was really a jewel. It was the birth of the ’60s. Becoming a Girl Friday was as much as a girl could expect back then. I told the guy who interviewed me that I could type 60 words a minute. What a lie! Imagine 60 words a minute on a manual typewriter. There, of course was no self-correcting. You would need fingers of steel. Well, I did my best. Part of my job was to type correspondence. “Dear Beckett…” “Dear Kerouac…” “Dear Henry Miller…” I also answered the phone and had to make coffee. At Grove we had an Apeco copy machine, which preceded Xerox by many years. The poets would come up to our office in Greenwich Village to make copies of their manuscripts. I was this cute, engaging, eager girl and I did all kinds of odd, mostly mundane jobs for them. Joel was one of the people and so was Allen. They were all friends and I became their friend. When I took up photography they let me photograph them. I was a real groupie, but a very naive innocent groupie. No drugs. No alcohol. An aside that in a way tells it all: When I was a junior at Tufts I took my junior year in Paris. I got restless during vacation and had no money for traveling. And I didn’t dare hitchhike by myself. So I got a job at the Brussels World’s Fair as a waitress in a Howard Johnson. I waited on a guy who told me he was a photographer and his name was Ouija. At least that is how I thought it was spelled…like a Ouija board. Only later did I realize my pal was Weegee. Weegee asked me to go to bed with him right when I was pouring coffee. And I said, “Huh? I’m a college girl!” That was me. Not playing dumb. Just really out of it. Clueless. I was the same person a year and a half later at Grove Press.

DPP: While you didn’t become Weegee’s muse, Ginsberg in a sense became yours.

ED: It was hard to take a bad photograph of Allen. Maybe it was because Allen was a photographer from way back. He loved to take pictures. Unrestrained, he could snap, snap and take rolls of film. His images of Kerouac, Cassady and Burroughs are the ones we have in our memory of those days. For the last decade or so he always had a camera with him. He went from a Rollei to lighter and lighter and smaller and smaller cameras. And he used whatever was his camera du jour all the time, even at my house in the last month of his life.

Allen always had a sense of what made a picture work. As a subject he instinctively helped photographers get what they wanted. He could concentrate and relax at the same time. He could “be there” in front of the lens. No self-consciousness. No reticence. He could pull together tiny details—a Buddha, a flower, a book, a postcard, the right tie, and in the old days, the right political button on his overalls and the right beads—that would anchor the photograph. The gesture Allen came up with was always very specific and it was always the right one.

Maybe Allen absorbed the essentials of photography from hanging around photographers and artists. He was proud of being a friend of Berenice Abbott, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon. He was proud that I picked up the camera, especially the Polaroid 20×24. Maybe Allen was such a good subject because he spent a lot of time looking. Maybe it was because being the subject of a photograph is partly performance and Allen was a great performer.

DPP: Another one of your famous sitters was Julia Child.

ED: We did two sessions. Julia was 80 at the time. I thought back then that being 80 was ancient but now that I am cruising to 79, it doesn’t seem so bad. She said to me, "Always bring a makeup person to a photo shoot." I never will forget that. I never wear makeup and wasn’t up on all the latest makeup tricks. Even so, Julia was a role model to me, and to many women in Cambridge. She shopped in the usual butcher shops and grocery stores. She dithered around in bakeries. She
showed up at events. She drove her car in the most terrifying way. I can’t believe they let her on the highways. And she took great care of her husband when he was ill.

When I was fishing around for what to do in the early ’70s she replied to my fan letter with something like, "You sound interesting. You will survive." It was a white Crane folded note card. Very tasteful. Her message was hand-printed. Her response meant the world to me. I never told her that she had made that kind gesture to me but she probably wouldn’t have remembered for her letters of encouragement were routine.

A portrait I took of Julia hung for years at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. But then it disappeared. A fan must have walked off with it.

DPP: You have a Master’s degree in elementary education. Did you want to be a teacher? How did this path lead to photography?

ED: When I was at Grove, I started something I called the Paterson Society. Ginsberg picked the name after William Carlos Williams’ opus “Paterson.” I arranged poetry readings at colleges for the poets Grove Press published. Joel Oppenheimer was the first or second poet whose book I published with LeRoi Jones. The Dutiful Son. It was all very heady and this seemed to be going in an exotic direction and I had no role models I could relate to. So I decided, one of those earthshaking decisions, to move back to Boston and become a teacher. I had no imagination for anything else. So I went to Boston College and got a degree to teach elementary education. I got a job in a lily-white suburb called Concord. I didn’t fit in with the administrators and I was probably too proto-beatnik for the parents. But one parent took me aside and said, “Psssst. You don’t belong here but I know where you would fit in.” And he pointed me in the direction of the Elementary Science Study, an outpost of MIT, where Berenice Abbott, of all people, was in charge of the photo publications. There were many filmmakers and photographers around and I just gravitated to them. They let me borrow cameras, taught me the darkroom. It was all very organic…not premeditated and certainly not intended. But I recognized it as heaven.

DPP: What’s the evolution of your camera equipment usage?

ED: I was using borrowed cameras. I think the first one was a Pentax, until 1967, when I sent $150 to Philip Whalen in Kyoto for he and Gary Snyder, who spoke Japanese, to buy a Mamiya 2 ¼ camera for me. That was a great note of confidence. All these gestures really mattered. In 1980 I began using the Polaroid 20×24 camera. There are only eight in the world. Seven are still in use. I love the size. By the time I picked up the Polaroid, not literally, it weigh over 200 pounds, I had used a 35mm and 2 1/4 for a long time. I had already published Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal. Polaroid let me rent their camera number 4 when it came back from Japan. I rented it for so many years that the people handling the liquidation of Polaroid let me keep it.

DPP: How many Polaroids do you typically take per sitter?

Dorfman’s Equipment
Polaroid 20×24 camera (with bellows that extend to almost 60 inches, usually set between 28 to 34 inches)
Fujinon A 600mm f11 lens
Copal 3 shutter
Broncolor lighting

The camera is supported by a two-column studio stand, and has a built in 110v AC motor processor on the back with 22″ titanium rollers to break and evenly disperse the pods containing the “reagent” between the negative and positive to begin the development process.

The negative is supplied as a 150-foot roll and sits on brackets at the top of the camera box while the 50-foot roll of positive material sits on a bracket at the bottom of the processor.

ED: Two or three. The film is expensive so you can’t shoot like you could with film, rat-a-tat.

DPP: How do you develop your ideas for both group and one-on-one portrait sessions?

ED: I go with the flow. I watch everything. Not on purpose. It is how I am. And I am always thinking. Not in a heavy way, but my mind races. I don’t even try and I have ideas. I mean, not as an inventor or a programmer or anything that would be handy, but for photographs, yes; poetry, ye;, reading, yes.

DPP: What have been some of your most interesting photographic experiences?

ED: Portrait sessions with people who know they are dying are the biggest responsibility and the most moving and the most terrifying. They are also the biggest honor.

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