American photographer Elsa Dorfman, known for her intimate large-scale portraits of well-known figures including Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Faye Dunaway, died last Saturday at age 83.
Over the span of her decades-long career, Dorfman, with her towering 20 x 24-inch Polaroid camera weighing over two hundred pounds, captured artists, poets and celebrities, as well as terminally ill cancer patients, and those living with HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.
Dorfman’s work is known for its authenticity and warmth. Often shot in her basement studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her subjects typically feature against a simple white background.
“I don’t like to take pictures of people who are sad, and I don’t like to take pictures of people who are brokenhearted,” Dorfman said in the 2017 documentary “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” directed by Errol Morris.
Born in 1937 in Cambridge, Dorfman earned a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University where she majored in French literature. After graduating she moved to New York City and was hired as a secretary by Grove Press. There she met Ginsberg and other poets including Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. She later returned to her hometown to take on a Master’s degree in elementary education. It was at this time that she first picked up a camera, while working in the science department at the Education Development Center in Waltham, Massachussetts.
Dorfman was gifted her first camera in 1967 and started selling photos in touristy Harvard Square, near the Ivy League university, for $2 to $5 each. She went on to publish “Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal” in 1974, which featured large self-portraits, shots of Ginsberg and civil rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate, whom she later married.
In the 1980s Dorfman turned her focus to portraiture, with the 20 x 24 Polaroids, using a 240-pound camera that she wheeled around the studio.
“It’s so theatrical. Don’t you think it’s theatrical?” Dorfman said in an interview with radio station Wbur. “When you think of a little digital or cellphone camera, you can’t compare.”
Dorfman’s works are held in collections at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Harvard Art Museums, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, among other institutions. Earlier this year she was given a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the first of her career.
She told Morris: “I somehow have this misguided therapeutic idea that it’s my role in the universe to make people feel better.”