Elsa Dorfman’s Polaroid portraits have immortalized countless big names, Julia Child, Errol Morris, Faye Dunaway, Allen Ginsberg… the list goes on. Dorfman says taking a photo is like delivering a baby, kneeling down with her Large Format Polaroid camera, pulling the film out of the bottom and cutting the exposure off of the roll. Today, that film supply is dwindling, pictures are fading, and Dorfman has plans to retire. She joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to chat about photography, Polaroid, and the end of an era.
MARGERY: Tell people about this extraordinary camera.
It’s about as big as an old-fashioned refrigerator. And it weighs about 200 pounds. It was made in the heyday of Polaroid, because Edwin Land wanted to—after they invented color Polaroid, which was way after color film, that was a really big deal and he wanted to take pictures of art. I think there was also sort of a military aspect of it, the government wanted it for high flying planes taking pictures… there were lots of agendas. They were handmade, and people at Polaroid would like to say that they were made over a weekend, but they were made within a month.
That was the day when companies had tool shops, and had really talented… like a talented shoemaker, there were really a whole society of really gifted mechanics...Tool-makers. Everything in the camera is handmade, and either made from either handmade parts of off-the-shelf.
JIM: How did you get one? Why were you one of the five people to own one?
I got one because Polaroid had a program where they invited local artists to use the camera. They provided them with like ten sheets of film, it was really parceled out, ten sheets of film. Polaroid for the Polaroid collection would take two of them. All of these things have another chapter. That beginning of the Polaroid collection, was screwed out of Polaroid, screwed out of the artists, and bought, when Polaroid disintegrated, it’s all gone. So all these cherished pictures, like the two best that I took of Allen Ginsberg, belong to Polaroid.
[Later] Somebody bought the whole Polaroid collection for a song, nobody knows where they are or really, it’s… you just want to scream.
JIM: I am told that in your dining room, there is a full-frontal polaroid nude of Allen Ginsberg, is that true?
It’s somewhere else. It’s gorgeous, it’s fabulous. Actually, I have several. But the best one, if I say so, ...there was a room-sized camera, only one. There was a platform outside the room where the subject posed, and then you, the photographer, stood on one part of the platform, and the person stood on another part, and it didn’t have a shutter. You had cardboard, and you covered the lens and you took it down so the picture would get enough light, and then you covered it again.
First I did Allen with his suit on, and then we got the idea that we would hang up the 40” X 80” along the wall, and Allen would stand naked in front of the picture of him dressed. It’s very magical, because it’s very thought-provoking. It has all this symbolism.
MARGERY: How old were you at the time? And how old was he?
I was probably 60 and he was probably 75.
JIM: And we should say, he wasn’t just a subject, he was a friend of yours.
MARGERY: Will this film last, if people have them in a frame?
No. All the frames are UV plexiglass, I give them to my clients in very high-end plexiglass.
MARGERY: That won’t save them?
No, it won’t. I went to a preservation scientist who told me they could only have like 48 hours of light a year. We have ours in our house in dark hallways.
JIM: Why are your retiring? Is it because film and supplies are dwindling?
I’m going to be 79. I think I would be retiring anyway.
Sometimes I forget people’s names. My parents and my mother in law had horrible old ages. Horrible. I think that as I’m inching to eighty, I have a fear at every stumble that I’m on my way. I think that’s common with people in my generation, so I over-exaggerate it, so that has part to do with it.
JIM: Not only are you retiring, which I think is horrible… are we approaching the point where we won’t see any of these things from anybody?
The whole thing is so sad, because Polaroid degenerated, and screwed retirees in ways that are indescribable, and they even screwed the artists that they really built their caché on, and now they’re just a brand. There is no more Polaroid. When it was clear that there was no more Polaroid, and they threw out so much stuff, incredible machines, incredible complicated machines that you could never reproduce now, they just tossed them out the third-floor windows.
When it was clear at Polaroid was gone, there was still film left in my camera, and there were five others. It’s called the 20”X24”. We found someone, an entrepreneur, who loves my work and other people’s work, and he bought all the leftover film. This was eight years ago. Since then, we’ve had to work with this film, and if you remember Polaroid, it always said expires in five months, we’ve kept it for eight years.
JIM: But there will come a point when it is no more?
And that will be in like, a year and a half.
JIM: I see your husband Harvey Silverglate, noted civil liberties lawyer, on the street all the time. Do you remember the story about when you first started selling your photographs, that Harvey told us?
I was selling [photographs] on the street, the police kept telling me to go, and Harvey had all this documentation about how I was protected by the first amendment, and I had all my certified documents, ‘you can’t arrest me! I’m protected by the first amendment!” Harvey was there, “she’s protected!” So they let me, and a jewelry-maker, and a few others, we were right in front of the bank, and in those days, the bank, every two weeks, had windows that people in the community could put things in. My first time that I had a picture in the bank, I had among the many pictures a frontal nude of a woman—it’s a great picture. Mr Bradlee called me, he said, “Elsa, I hate to tell you, but you have to take that picture out of the bank window.” so I did. And then Mr Bradley, the president of the bank, he was fabulous. Every year, he wrote his annual report, and in that report he wrote, among other achievements, “I had to get Elsa Dorfman to take her nude out of the bank window.”
When I was broke, Mr Bradlee decided the bank should collect photography, so he would buy enough of my pictures to balance my account, and he would always warn me, in those days, they would stand behind your overdrawn checks, the bank was so wonderful to me.
MARGERY: Julia Child is among the many celebrities that you photographed.
I adored Julia. She was so classy. Now, when I think of it, it was when she was 80, she drove… (Harvey won’t let me drive anywhere). She took good care of her husband when he was sick, she really started WGBH off with her show in a way… It was her 80th birthday, and all these people were celebrating her, and she wanted a portrait. Somebody told her to call me, she comes to my studio, introduces me to her makeup person, and says to me, “Never go out without your makeup person.” I will never forget it.
MARGERY: Anybody ever react to your photograph with horror, and it was an awkward situation?
I can tell you one. One of the Kennedy’s… The one who’s wife is Sheila? Joe Kennedy. Ethel Kennedy, his mother, bought Joe and his wife a gift of a portrait for their twin boys. The boys were rambunctious, and they touch everything… they’re not badly behaved, but they don’t expect you to say, ‘don’t jiggle my computer.’ They’re entitled to the world. I really turned myself inside out with two boys and a dog, and I just want to get a really good picture, so I get the picture and I dropped it off at Sheila’s house, and then I get a call from Joe Kennedy’s honcho. I think, in my naivete, that he’s calling me to tell me he loved the picture. He says, “I hate the picture you took of my boys, I cannot stand it. That isn’t my boys, and I want my mother to get her money back.” I was so dumbfounded. I think I donated the money to the Robert F. Kennedy charity. I called up Sheila, and I said, “he ruined my day!” and she said, “He’s ruined more than one of mine.”
To Hear More of Elsa Dorfman’s interview with BPR, click on the audio link above.