Photographer Elsa Dorfman, who created large-format portraits of herself and others using a 200-pound Polaroid camera, has died at age 83. According to a report by the Boston Globe, the cause of her death was kidney failure.
Over the course of her decades-long career, Dorfman produced Polaroid photographs of herself, friends, celebrities, and fellow artists to explore notions of personhood. In The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, a 2017 documentary directed by Errol Morris, Dorfman said that one of the aims of her practice was to cultivate joy for her subjects. She believed that, through her work, it was her “role in the universe to make people feel better.”
Born in 1937 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dorfman earned a degree in French literature from Tufts University in 1959. Following her graduation, she moved to New York to work as a secretary at Grove Press in New York, where she met and befriended the poet Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and other writers and artists.
After relocating to Boston and completing a master’s degree in elementary education, Dorfman spent a year teaching fifth grade. She began her career in photography at the Education Development Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she worked in a darkroom.
In the early 1970s, Dorfman started selling her photographs for up to $5 in Harvard Square. By 1974, the artist had published Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal, which features images of the many notable visitors, including Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso, to her Cambridge home during her first years behind the camera.
It was not until 1980 that she began creating 20-by-24-inch portraits, and the first one she took shows her with Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky. A large-format portrait by Dorfman was priced at $50 early in her career, but in recent years the artworks have cost thousands of dollars. The artist often added handwritten captions below her Polaroids to described and memorialize the scenes captured.
Dorfman’s work can be found in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Harvard Art Museums, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, and other institutions. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which has works by Dorfman in its permanent holdings, opened an exhibition of the photographer’s self-portraits earlier this year.
When she retired in 2015, Dorfman told WBUR, “I couldn’t do it with any other camera. Can you really say why you fell in love someone or why your marriage lasted? You can say why a marriage didn’t last, but … I don’t think, if someone said to me, ‘Well, why are you still married?’ I could never put my finger on it.”
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