Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has interviewed and made films on some of the most noteworthy subjects of the 20th and 21st century including former Secretaries of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld and scientist Stephen Hawking. His classic film, “A Thin Blue Line,” helped to release the film’s subject from prison. His newest film, “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” is a look at the life and work of famed large format Polaroid photographer and Cambridge, Mass. local, Elsa Dorfman. The film follows Dorfman’s rise as a photographer and how she came to be a master of the massive 20 x 24 Polaroid. Dorfman and Morris joined BPR Weekend to discuss the film and Dorfman’s photography. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
What is it about the immediacy of the Polaroid camera that you liked?
Dorfman: That is sort of like saying, ‘How did you fall in love with him? Well, he never shined his shoes, I liked the scruffy look.’ I really can’t say what it was, but it was love at first sight. There were certain things; it was the size, it’s big. Even though I’m a short person, my image of myself is — I should go in line with the tall people. I was a big, tall person and I had to work with this big, tall camera. It didn’t matter that it towered over me. I had just had a child and I had worked 17 years in the darkroom by then. I thought, I’m not going to poison this house. The Polaroid was a way to be productive and not have to work in the dark room.
Errol, you and Elsa are long-time friends. How did you meet?
Morris: I love Elsa. I’ve known Elsa for 25 years. We met her because she took a Polaroid photograph of my son when he was 5-years-old. He’s 30-years-old now, it is hard to believe. We’ve known her all that time and she became, along with her husband Harvey, a close friend of the family.
What do feel when you look at one of Elsa’s polaroids?
Morris: It is hard to look at any of Elsa’s polaroids without feeling a sense of relief. Thank God I went down there and had her take the photograph. The feeling of relief and deep appreciation ... I don’t know how else to describe it.
You were taking selfies before selfies were even a thing. What attracted you to take so many pictures of yourself?
Dorfman: It is terrifying to be across from a camera, and the camera — this sounds banal — but the camera can be your friend. If I did it and felt comfortable with the camera, then the person I was photographing would realize, oh, she does this with herself, it’s okay. It was a subliminal thing, maybe it was only magic in my own head as if you went home and you were blubbering into your phone to an imaginary best friend and you thought, ‘Oh I don’t sound so bad. I don’t ask bad questions.' It was very important.
How do you view art?
Errol: People forget about art, that it’s an act often of courage. The decision to do something rather than nothing, to actually produce something .... that is always a risky enterprise. If you do nothing you can avoid the criticism of having done something that people don’t like.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the interview of Errol Morris and Elsa Dorfman in its entirety, click on the audio player above.