Documentary Review: ‘The B-Side’ Looks At The Life Of Elsa Dorfman

Review by Mark Merrell

Elsa Dorfman did not set out to become a professional photographer, life took her by the hand, and brought her down that path. Striking out on her own in 1959 at the age of twenty two, she landed a job as an office assistant with Grove Press (a publisher) in New York. While there, she met several authors, musicians, and poets, including Allen Ginsberg (Howl & Other Poems, The Fall Of America). According to Elsa, he always wanted copies of everything he did. One day he asked her where, “the can,” was. Elsa was unaware that, “the can,” is a slang term for bathroom. Her response amused Ginsberg, and the two became fast friends for the next fifty years until Ginsbergs death.

Elsa noted her surroundings, finding her female colleagues promiscuous or drinking a lot. Stating that she is a good Jewish girl, not wanting to fall into those lifestyles, she went back home to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live with her parents, eventually earning a masters degree. She began teaching at the grade school level, when she was having her picture taken, and was given a Hasselblad camera by the photographer. She began taking pictures, encouraged to do so, thinking it would be fun. Elsa shot in black and white primarily. She soon realized she had a knack for producing great pictures, especially when she cleared her mind, letting her inner creative self let go with the moment.

Elsa shares her life experiences first hand for the audience, including the night she attended a Bob Dylan concert. After hearing from her husband, Harvey Sliverglate and friend Allen Ginsberg that Elsa was a great photographer, she was asked to get her camera. Elsa had left it in the car as per security at the time. Upon returning with her camera, they went in to Dylan’s dressing room, where she started taking pictures. She snapped an iconic photograph catching Dylan and Ginsburg in conversation.

Bob Dylan would be among many persons that Elsa would photograph during her career. She eventually moved to another instrument to take her pictures; a Polaroid 20×24 camera, as well as a 40×80. Her work is breathtaking. Elsa provides insight on her photography as we witness it. During her career she produced a book, ‘Elsa’s Housebook – A Woman’s Photojournal,’ published in 1974.

Directed and narrated by Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Unknown Known, The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara), he lets Elsa take the narrative for the most part, all the while providing a welcoming confidant to her work with the film’s cinematography.

Elsa is beyond charming and inspiring, as the film seems to welcome you into it’s inviting creative arms with each picture and Elsa’s life experiences. “You can predict, predict, and predict, but what you find out is that life is unpredictable,” Elsa explains. Elsa lamented that perhaps photographs are most treasured when they bring us face to face with a loved one that has passed away. She also reminds us that the future is happening now, rushing by moment by moment.

A most charming, warm, and interesting movie, reflective of it’s primary focus, B-Side is definitely a film to experience.

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