The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is a documentary film that chronicles the life of Elsa Dorfman and her career as a professional, portrait photographer. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to the title character of Elsa Dorfman and we are taken on journey throughout her life as she begins to tell essentially stories of her life from being a grade school teacher to her first exposure into the field of photography. As the film moves forward, one might make the assumption or judgment that the concept of simply listening to an individual tell stories about their life in a documentary might not be the most enticing idea ever but it is thanks to Elsa Dorfman that makes this film as a whole really engaging. Dorfman’s overall genuine and charismatic demeanor grabs one’s attention as she talks about her life and how photography and the Polaroid camera truly impacted her life. Her signature style of portrait photography came about through the use of the 20 x 24 Polaroid camera which she has been using for decades despite the constant development of new technology within her field.
Majority of this film is spent going through Dorfman’s various photos as each one serves as the start of another chapter, experience or memory in her life. From photos of her parents and brother to photos of her moving a new couch into her apartment when she was younger, each picture tells a story visually on their own and then context is given by Dorfman later on which makes us, as the audience, feel as if we’re right there with her during these moments. This adds further evidence towards the main strength of the film which is Dorfman as a person and how the life she has lead up to this point proves to be intriguing, adventurous and even inspirational overall because of how many people doubted her and made her feel like she didn’t belong anywhere. That’s why you feel for her during and after the moment when she decides to pursue her passion for photography because of how her story is so relatable to the majority of the audiences and how most people have that desire to follow their passions but must sacrifice that for something practical or give up due to the negativity of others. Moreover, the title of this documentary and its relevance comes into play towards the end of the film as Dorfman explains how her customers choose which copy of their portrait that they want to keep and the ones that they don’t want are the negatives or the B-side.
Dorfman believes that the B-sides are just as good or if not better than the ones that the people keep which allows the audience to peer into another layer of her persona and how she truly is an artist that sees the worth within all of her pieces. While this part of the film is relatively small in comparison to other aspects, it still adds another quality to Dorfman that continues to make her such an appealing individual. Though the majority of this documentary is well structured with a relatively even pace all the way to the end, everything seemed cut short and left one perhaps wanting more or at least wanting Dorfman to go into more detail about some of the experiences she went through like her encounter with Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. This might not be necessarily a negative on the film for there may not be anymore to some of those stories and can serve as a mere credit as to how engaged I was as a simple viewer and in the end I wanted to hear more about her. With that in mind, this film succeeds at giving one an opportunity to gaze into an individual’s life through the use of numerous visuals and captivating storytelling provided by Elsa Dorfman, without overstaying her welcome, which catapults this documentary into being an overall achievement.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
The B-Side serves as a very introspective look into the life of not only a unique artist but also a fascinating woman who has lived a life of no regrets following her true passion. Both Elsa Dorfman and the director, Errol Morris, successfully paint a picture of the life that Dorfman has lived while also giving the audience a look into those times and the landscape of photography as a profession. This documentary truly went above and beyond in merely providing the audience with facts but also creating an emotional connection with its title character Elsa Dorfman. Through every photo or every flashback of her life, we as the audience are treated to a small piece of this woman’s character right up until the credits where we are now left with a feeling of not only meeting an extraordinary person but also longing for another picture or another flashback as if we were a child listening attentively to stories from a beloved grandparent. The B-Side is indeed a captivating experience right from the start once we begin this journey with Dorfman viewing different segments of her life as we witness the faces of all the people she has met and the thousands of smiles that she has captured on film throughout her career.