Interview With Elsa Dorfman
By Adam Szrotek & Sylwia Banasiak
Can you recall your beginnings with Polaroid cameras and tell us about it?
I started using the polaroid 20x24 on feb.8, 1980. The studio was in an old building at 20 Ames Street in Cambridge. The bldg is now the site of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology art museum. I visited the studio the day before to see what the set up was and to get a sense of the camera. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were visiting me and Polaroid allowed me a free session on the camera in exchange for my giving them a few original prints. I was allotted ten shots and I went over the allotted number because I got so caught up in the excitement of the camera. As Allen and Peter and I were leaving for the studio I grabbed a red amaryllis that my husband had bought me and brought it w/ us for the session. I had no idea how I wd use the amaryllis. Here are three images from the session.
You can see that in the image of Allen dressed the amaryllis hasn't opened up yet, but by the time he and Peter posed w/o clothes the amaryllis had opened up under the light.
The little red containers were incense and ink that Allen had in his knapsack. The black cube was lying around the studio. Here is an image of me w/ Allen and Peter from that day:
I know you rent the 20x24 camera from Polaroid Corporation. What are the rules of this cooperation?
From 1980 to 1987 I rented the Polaroid once a month and brought clients to the studio that Polaroid ran, first at its own space in Cambridge, then at the Museum School and then at Mass College of Art. The studio had lights but I had to bring all kinds of props, chairs, flowers, and lots of etceteras... basically odd things that might just come in handy. It was an enormous schlep and bother. And at the art schools they really didn't want me to let clients bring in dogs. And when people called me for an appointment, I could ONLY accommodate them on the ONE day I had arranged w/ Polaroid. It was a big drag. I started almost immediately to beg and nag Polaroid, namely Eelco Wolf, a wonderful Polaroid vp, to let me rent a camera and put it in my own space. I was willing to do anything: build my own camera. Rent a space. Anything. Finally, in winter 1987 Eelco Wolf approved of a rental space in a building in Cambridge I had found and decided the building was appropriate for the Polaroid 20x24. So at the end of May 1987 I moved into what still is my studio space. Aside from the usual insurance obligations, there was an informal understanding that I would produce work that Polaroid cd be proud of and that I wd do nothing to embarrass the company.
Well, I had always been a portrait photographer. From 1965, so it was natural for me to continue w/ portraits. Though I have taken "portraits" of buildings I am essentially in my core and my intuition a photographer of people. See some of my work from before 1974 at Elsa's Housebook:
Why do you think Polaroid portrait is so appealing to people?
Well, the color is so lovely. The paper is so tactile. It has real presence. It doesn't lay flat like a regular photographic print or a digital print. It does its own thing: it curls, it moves. And of course there is the size. And there is the incredible detail. Although now that digital can approximate the detail, the extreme detail becomes less exclusive of the 20x24. But the Polaroid print has a real feeling of CRAFT and of being made by a machine that is both precise and imprecise at the same time. A machine that, forgive me, has a soul.
Do you think people are intimidated by the presence of this unusual camera?
Well, as more and more people get used to "camera" meaning “small" "able to be held in yr hand" the idea of a "camera" the size of a refrigerator, w/ large bellows seems odder and odder. Remember the camera in the French children's book abt the elephants... the name eludes me. When that book was written, a camera w/ bellows was still a familiar image. Not any more. But I try very hard to make my studio Unintimidating. And really, so many things can happen w/ the camera, this not working or that, that in the end it isn't intimidating at all. I think or I try to get my subjects to feel the camera needs ALL the help from THEM it can get!!!!! Actually, it isn't the camera that intimidates people, it is all the lights. they may not be intimidated BEFORE the first shot, but they are scared at the second shot.
This happens all the time w/ dogs, who are SO SMART that they know on the second shot that the lights are going to go off w/ a big flash.
Can you please tell us, how the average session looks: are there any arrangements or rather spontaneity?
I only take two or three maybe four exposures. Not only because the film is very expensive but because the images definitely DO NOT GET BETTER the more images I take, My style as a photographer is to appear that I do not know exactly what I am doing but in fact the wheels are spinning in my brain. I need my subjects to project their personalities and I need their help. I get them to take pity on me and help me, help me by being their best selves. I try to make my studio a holy place, a place where they can try to relax and be holy. Of course they are worrying abt their hair, whether their skirts are askew, if their kid is behaving, if the dog is facing the camera, so it is true that the CONTROL has to come from some inner channeling. Some place beyond us. On my web site there are several short film clips of me taking portraits. These short film clips are VERY accurate: http://elsa.photo.net/kraemerfilms.html
Do you only take portraits?
Yes. I take only portraits because I love/ like people. I respond to them. I am interested in them. I have a real sense of a holy mission when I take a picture. I embrace my subject. I reach out to them. I want the best for them. It is a spiritual experience for me... and I hope for them. I know I am doing something very meaningful. For me. For them. For the people who follow them. For people who will look at our time in history and try to understand us.
I can totally understand approaching the photographing of buildings w/ the same spirituality, but it is VERY HARD to take such portraits of buildings: the federal express truck, the traffic, the shadows are always in the way.
What was the weirdest request you had received?
I guess the weirdest request wd be people having requests for blatantly sexual portraits. I'm just not into that. I just refuse. However, the most moving experiences are when people ask me to take a family portrait when they know a family member is dying. This is absolutely the most meaningful and moving experience for me, and a huge honor and responsibility too. I have dedicated my book, nohairday, to all the people I have photographed who knew they were dying.
Have you ever refused to take a portrait? If yes, please tell us what the circumstances were.
Well, I wd refuse to take a portrait if someone got very upset during the session or if a kid began to lose it. Which sometimes happens. I don't want anyone to have a bad painful experience in my studio. There have been times when I have sent a family out to get a slice of pizza and to regroup. And there are times when I have taken just one shot and told the family that it simply wasn't worth it to suffer a second shot because the kid, usually a little boy, had had enuf.
When speaking about Polaroid’s people often point out "the magic" of these cameras. Do you also feel it?
Yes, the camera is totally magical. Partly because it is so unpredictable. So much can go wrong, and partly because a portrait is so collaborative and because, in my hands at least, it is a spiritual experience.
After so many years of portraying people, do you consider your work as progressing? Looking back at your work, have you noticed any changes in your personal style?
I feel like my work has changed or gotten looser but it is hard for me to tell. I feel it is my job to take the portraits and some one else’s job, maybe yrs, to figure out what I am doing. it is my job to do the work. I can analyze other artists work, but I have trouble analyzing my own. I obsess abt my work and think abt it all the time, and do something akin to praying before a session, a kind of meditation, but it is hard to break the work into components and to analyze it. when you look at my work and look at the dates of my work, do you see an evolution?????
Do you consider yourself as an artist or rather as a craftsman?
I consider myself BOTH and consider it an honor to be BOTH. I actually consider myself a shaman or medium. Someone who reads people's souls intuitively. is that brash or self aggrandizing. Probably. Oh dear. But I consider myself some sort of magician.
Some say, that environment talks a lot about personality and it can give you a lot of information about the person. You place your models in front of the simple background. Have you ever thought about changing the surroundings?
I agree that environment is important in portraiture. At least very interesting. And I have done that w/ a regular camera. but the Polaroid 20x24 has so many limitations, that environment wd never work. in fact, the limitations add to the camera's magic. What can the photographer do w/in the rigid limitations? There is so little depth of field it is hard to include surroundings. I have only moved the camera out of my studio a couple of times, w/ lots of help in those circumstances from John Reuter and Tracy Storer and Ian Churchill. I wdn't dare jeopardize the fragile camera and take it out of my studio again. And I have only experimented w/ colored backgrounds once, when I used a BLUE background for people posing w/ angel wings!!!!!!
How frequent are the errors?
It depends what you call errors. Are blinks errors? Is the camera not working right an error. Is my forgetting a step in operating the camera an error. Yeah. Sometimes I have a spate of errors. I can't get in the groove. For one reason or another. And one error begets another error. I lose it. Sometimes I think the camera has a dybbuk in it who knows when I feel pressure or when I am having trouble getting “with it” w/ my client. Or or or or. That's why I say the camera has a soul. I have had nightmare experiences w/ families where one person or another blinked... for six exposures. That was years ago, and now if it happened that way, I wd call it quits and send them home. Maybe blinks are contagious. They shld just be a statistical anomaly.
What about errors, like ones we can see on the picture featuring sisters?
Aha. That was a camera error. I was near the end of the roll of negative. I get 39 exposures on the negative... and i was near the end and the positive and negative didn't go through the rollers easily... you can see the marks where the negative dragged along and you can see the marks where the technician rolling the negative was handling it... the color stuff is from extra chemicals that somehow "gooped" around the image. Sometimes I have a fallen pod... where the pod or black line at the top is crooked.
At first I worried abt those images, or even the ones w/ other technical problems like these girls, but as I've had more experience i kind of embrace them and like them a lot. You have a picture of a family, taken toward end of December... of a family w/ a cat... there is a similar line across the image... I think it was a light leak from the camera because I had the negative down for a long time to catch the cat. Miraculously, the client who is an architect realized that the light streak didn't ruin the image, if anything it enhanced it. Very sensitive guy.
You have that image - it's four people and a cat!!!! By the way, those girls in the picture you included are included in the family show. I have taken them four times. They are on p.2.
Is there anything you would like to change about this certain Polaroid camera?
Well, it cd use certain indicators. Like when the negative is running out. Or the positive is running out. Or if the pod isn't straight. And it cd use a better way or lowering and raising the negative. And I wd love to different lenses for it. And it wd be nice if it were really light tight.
Have you ever tried to work with black and white film?
If course I love black and white film in regular cameras. I haven't used black and white w/ the Polaroid 20x24 and don't have the urge to try.
Photographers you admire.
Richard Avedon, an absolute genius. Mary Ellen Mark. Bill Cunningham. Another genius whose work looks sooo simple and it surely isn't. See him in every Sunday in “New York Times” style section. Photojournalists. Diane Arbus of course, Sanders, Lee Friedlander, a real hero of mine. He keeps on going. I adore photography books and looking at images on the web.
I go to galleries as much as I can, considering my hermit tendencies. I look at everyone's portraits. I also like architectural photographs. Of course I think they are portraits... just of buildings not persons.
Interviewed by Adam Szrotek & Sylwia Banasiak