The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (R)

Documentary 76 min. July 21, 2017
By Bilge Ebiri
Documentarian Errol Morris's latest is a significantly more playful and understated film than the work he's been recognized for in recent years. In The B-Side the photographer Elsa Dorfman recalls her decades of taking portraits using large-format Polaroid cameras. She's a chatty subject, and the film has the feel of an engaging doodle, as Dorfman guides us through her archive, rarely dwelling on one picture or figure for too long (though she does discuss her long friendship with Allen Ginsberg, whom she shot in some startling ways). The pictures are so huge that when she holds them out for Morris's lens the images often cover her up.

There's something there, we sense, about how the person behind the camera engages with their subject, but Morris prefers to let the idea just hang there, visually, instead of going too far into it. That's not a problem. Portrait photography can have a frozen, cast-in-stone quality, but the Dorfman images seen here capture the immediacy of the moment; there's an ephemerality to them. The reason might be embedded in the title of the movie: The "B sides" in question are the photos she has kept in her archive, which are often the ones rejected by her clients. These discards, we come to learn, reveal more about the subjects and the circumstances of the photographic instant than more polished portraits ever could. The implication is that there's resonance in imperfection, depth in disposability. The same could be said of this slight, fascinating little movie.
Errol Morris Elsa Dorfman Rialto

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