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Cambridge Photographer Elsa Dorfman, Famous For Her Giant Polaroids, Dies At 8307:35
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Photographer Elsa Dorfman with her 20x24 Polaroid camera in her studio in 2015. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Photographer Elsa Dorfman with her 20x24 Polaroid camera in her studio in 2015. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The inimitable and seemingly always ebullient Elsa Dorfman, a Cambridge fixture known as much for her large Polaroid portraits as for her authenticity, openness and warmth, died Saturday. She was 83.

Her husband of 44 years, Harvey Silverglate, said she died of complications from kidney failure.

Dorfman first became known in Cambridge when she started selling her photos in a pushcart in Harvard Square. When police tried to chase her away, Silverglate, a civil rights attorney, successfully argued that photographs are not ordinary merchandise that required a peddler's license but were an intellectual product protected by the First Amendment. Dorfman sold the photos for between $2 and $5 to make ends meet.

"I was the queen of freelancing before freelancing had a name," Dorfman said in a 2015 interview in her Cambridge studio.

Far from a pushcart, at the height of her career a 20-by-24 inch Polaroid portrait by Dorfman cost thousands of dollars. Her work is widely praised for showing people unguarded, and many times joyful. It wasn't unusual for her "sitters," as she called them, to say they enjoyed the posing as much as the portrait. Those sittings would include lots of banter and Dorfman's infectious laughter. She said she would try to take a shot when she felt the authenticity of the moment.

Self-Portrait, September 15, 1986 (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts)
Self-Portrait, September 15, 1986 (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts)

"I certainly know what I want and I know I'm never going to get that, or get it while you can and don't think about it too much," Dorfman said. "I like it to not look plastic [or] like people too made up. People who like to be portrayed size zero, high heels — they don't come to me."

People also came to her for the unique type of Polaroid portrait. Dorfman had the only privately owned, 240-pound accordion-like box instant Polaroid Land camera. Polaroid made only about a half dozen of them. Dorfman couldn't say why she would only work with this rare enormous camera with its fragile film and chemical pods that were hard to come by, especially after Polaroid went bankrupt twice in the 2000s and stopped selling instant film in 2009. She just knew that when she found the camera in 1980, she was smitten.

"I couldn't do it with any other camera," Dorfman said. "I don't know [why]. Can you really say why you fell in love with someone or why your marriage lasts? You can say why your marriage didn't last, but if someone asked me why did your marriage last? I don't know I could never put my finger on it."

"Our Second Family Portrait," 2010 (Courtesy Elsa Dorfman)
"Our Second Family Portrait," 2010 (Courtesy Elsa Dorfman)

Her longtime assistant, filmmaker John Reuter, taught Dorfman how to use the camera when he was working for Polaroid, which was then based in Cambridge.

"The irony is she leased the camera and leased it for so long she could have bought three of them," Reuter said in 2015.

The Polaroid, he said, was an extension of Dorfman's oversized personality and how she was able to connect with her subjects.

"The key thing for her is the relationship between her and the sitters — to get the most out of them and the camera is supposed to kind of do its thing," Reuter said.

Silverglate said even the process of revealing the photo excited his wife, from snapping the photo, to waiting 90 seconds to it to set, then peeling away the top sheet to reveal the image.

"She was always thrilled that people really enjoyed the portraits she took of them," Silveglate said. "She wanted to please and thrill the people whose portraits she took, whose children's portraits she took. And she did that. She accomplished that. It was palpable the love between photographer and subject."

"I couldn't do it with any other camera I don't know [why]. Can you really say why you fell in love with someone or why your marriage lasts?"

Elsa Dorfman

Typically, Dorfman would take two shots. The one her subject chose she called the "A Side." The others she would keep.

Dorfman was the subject of the 2017 documentary film by Errol Morris, titled "The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography." During a Lincoln Center talk about the documentary, Morris said Dorfman's work was one of a kind.

"Once for a grant application, I said that Elsa's art is the perfect combination of dime store photography and renaissance portraiture, and I'll stick to that," Morris said.

Dorfman grew up in Roxbury and Newton, went to Tufts University and thought she might become a writer. She moved to New York City in the late 1950s and made the bold move to live alone. She worked as a secretary for the book publisher Grove Press, which at the time was known as the publisher of many Beat generation writers.  Dorfman made many lifelong friends there.

But she became disillusioned with New York and returned home to get a teaching degree from Boston College.

"I decided that New York was too much for me," Dorfman said in Morris' documentary. "There was no woman that I met who wasn't an alcoholic, who wasn't promiscuous, who wasn't a druggie and was creative or had an interesting life. Really a defeat for me was that I went back home and lived with my parents and got a degree at BC to teach elementary school."

Elsa Dorfman, "On my 51st birthday." April 26, 1988 (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts)
Elsa Dorfman, "On my 51st birthday." April 26, 1988 (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts)

Her heart wasn't in teaching and she often told the story of a parent who pointed this out to her. But she creatively blossomed in Massachusetts. Dorfman entered a science program for teachers. That's where she met photographers and found her medium. In a television interview about her 1974 book, "Elsa's Housebook: A Woman's Photojournal," Dorfman said she was driven to do something different — to become something — and photography allowed her to feel as if she was tapping into that.

"It's sort of like a reservoir that's in me that's operating but I'm not thinking about it when I actually have ... the camera is in my hands," she said. "I'm really guided by unconscious. Sounds kind of mystical. I think I take my best pictures when my head isn't cluttered with other things."

Dorfman's photos of her friends, many of whom she met in New York, propelled her career. Her studio includes photos of Bob Dylan, Julia Child and Allen Ginsberg, who was a regular visitor to her Cambridge home. Dorfman's portrait of Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky hangs in the National Gallery.

From her friend the late poet Robert Creeley, Dorfman borrowed the phrase "onward," which was how she signed off on letters and emails. When asked to what she attributed her success, she said a lot of it was luck.

"I never had a master plan. I don't have the personality for a master plan," Dorfman said. "I was one lucky little Jewish girl who escaped by the skin of her teeth. That's what I think."

Her studio was filled with mementos and photos of friends, herself and her family — her husband, their son Isaac Dorfman Silverglate, his wife Annette Morales and their two children Sarah and Seth. Her longtime Flagg Street neighbor Margot Kempers is archiving the materials in Dorfman's studio.

Elsa Dorfman, "What's in the future for me and the 20x24?" July 20, 2007 (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts)
Elsa Dorfman, "What's in the future for me and the 20x24?" July 20, 2007 (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts)

Silverglate says people from all over the world have been in touch since his wife got sick last year. He said he never realized how many people she touched and said she had the "gift of friendship."

Many of the friends from around the world sent photographs of their Dorfman portrait, in the most honored place in their houses.

In Morris' documentary, Dorfman said one guiding principle for her was to enjoy her work and use it help.

"I don't like to take pictures of people who are sad or broken hearted," she said. "I somehow have this misguided therapeutic idea that it's my role in the universe to make people feel better. This will be easy. Look it's easy. Let's have fun."

An exhibit of Dorfman's work opened at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in February. Silverglate says she was thrilled by the exhibit and seeing it was the last time she left her house. A reception was scheduled, and Silverglate was scheduled to honor his wife with a talk, but it was canceled when the MFA closed because of the pandemic.

Silverglate said he will plan memorial services in Cambridge and New York once the pandemic ends. He says his wife, a student of faces, would not want a service where people were sitting six feet apart wearing masks.

Onward, Elsa.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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