Advertisement

The Underside Of What Matters

Errol Morris’s new documentary is a touching portrait of photographer Elsa Dorfman

courtesy-of-fourth-floor-productions-and-moxie-pictures-.jpg

Errol Morris, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, 2016, film still. Courtesy: Fourth Floor Productions and Moxie Pictures

Errol Morris, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, 2016, film still. Courtesy: Fourth Floor Productions and Moxie Pictures

Errol Morris’s new documentary, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, is not as eviscerating as his classic takes on politics, The Fog of War (2003) or The Unknown Known (2013). But whereas in The Unknown Known Morris was needlessly repetitive, recycling the same images throughout, perhaps due to his taking on – once again, a political theme – he now delivers a refreshingly intimate portrait of his old friend. Elsa Dorfman’s work is ephemeral yet grand: using a giant 20” x 24” camera, that is now discontinued, Dorfman has produced some of the world’s largest Polaroid images, showing that unwieldy technology does not need to be limiting when used imaginatively.

The B-Side wouldn’t be a Morris film if it did not pose some essential questions. ‘Does a photograph tell the truth?’ asks Dorfman. ‘Not at all. That’s why I like it.’ Perhaps Dorfman and Donald Rumsfeld, whose equivocation was the subject The Unknown Known, have something in common. Both know that media can deceive. ‘It’s all about a unique encounter,’ Dorfman says. The camera can only show what the subject gives it, in that one instant.

Morris’s 2011 book, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, included rigorous investigation. The B-Side strikes a more earnest note: Dorfman’s congeniality belies how formidable she is. Firstly, there are the stunning portraits she took for more than 30 years of literati, from Allen Ginsburg and W. H. Auden to Anne Sexton and Jorge Luis Borges. Then there are the black and white images that Dorfman, ‘a good Jewish girl,’ took of herself nude. Their directness is a nice contrast to Ginsberg’s who was more consciously performative.

In a stroke of genius, Morris plays the messages that were left on Dorfman’s machine, right before, and immediately after, Ginsburg’s death. Since so much of her work was devoted to the Beat poet, this gesture creates a sense of life, and art, coming full circle. This is perhaps the most prescient lesson of The B-Side: the technology that we took for granted, relinquishes its beauty and faces extinction.

‘Maybe that’s the meaning of the photograph,’ Dorfman says. ‘When someone dies.’ Dorfman, who has retired, must know this well. Many faces she has immortalized are no longer with us.

Ela Bittencourt works as a critic and curator in the United States and Latin America. She writes for publications such as Art in America, Film Comment, frieze and the Village Voice and runs a film site, Lyssaria.

Advertisement

Most Read

Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst charts the artist’s career from the 1980s to the present, from ‘fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to...
In further news: Angela Gulbenkian sued over Kusama pumpkin; and Pussy Riot re-arrested immediately after release from...
With Art Week in town, a guide to the best exhibitions to see, from sonic surveillance to Ronnie van Hout’s showdown...
Moving between figuration and abstraction, the New York-based painter and teacher made work about in-between spaces and...
Trump’s State Department is more than 3 months late in announcing its national pavilion – testament to the chaos...
The continued dominance of UK-US writers makes a mockery of the Man Booker’s ‘global outlook’
The fashion photographer has been accused on Twitter of ripping off another artist – with both represented by the same...
Katharina Cibulka has stitched ‘As long as the art market is a boys’ club, I will be a feminist,’ across her alma mater...
The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018