Obsessions: Behind the Lens

A photographer’s world is filled with larger-than-life people—and one very big camera.

Elsa Dorfman with the camera that made her a star. (Photo by Jared Leeds)

Elsa Dorfman’s story is legendary. Originally known for her photos of the Beat Generation, the Cantabrigian was one of a few artists (including Jim Dine and Chuck Close) that Polaroid approached in the 1970s to try out its new instant technology. By 1980 Dorfman was using the massive 20-by -24-inch, 200-pound camera to create her signature images. “I just had a baby, and I didn’t want to work in the darkroom,” Dorfman recalls. “Polaroid was duck soup! So fun, so easy.”

Arranging her subjects against a white seamless background, Dorfman created poster-size snapshots of prominent local families, celebrities, and characters. Each print had thick white borders, which she labeled by hand in black ink. There were few retakes (due to the prohibitive cost of the film, at $200 per sheet exposure), and retouching was impossible. Sometimes she would return decades later to re-photograph the same subjects in the same pose. The resulting shots are a fascinating look at how people change.

Now 75, Dorfman lives among her favorite portraits, including a family of three struggling to pose with their five cats, a 76-year-old Julia Child smiling with her hands in her skirt pockets, and plenty of Allen Ginsberg. She’s still clicking away, using one of the six large-format Polaroid cameras still in existence. She’s also hoping to start a Kickstarter campaign for a self-published book documenting her portraits of families. See what else makes up her colorful life.

Photo by Jared Leeds

1. Glass Sculpture

“In my studio, always in my view, are two of Florence Perkins’s glass cacti,” Dorfman says of the Sante Fe-based artist’s work.

Photo via iStockphoto

2. Window Views 

“My aesthetic is really influenced by looking out—out of eyeglasses, out of windows, and out of -Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village.”

Photo via iStockphoto

3. Quirky Furniture

“I purposely collect odd chairs that might speak to different people.” Out-of-state clients who want to use her props, however, are told that they’re “responsible for [their] own funk.”

Photo by Jared Leeds

4. Box Frames 

“Small Corp frames, made in Greenfield, are spectacular.”

Photo by Jared Leeds

5. Local Neon

“I have had a Neon Williams sign, made in Somerville, in my studio since 1987. It is a replica of my signature.”

Photo via iStockphoto

6. Mail-Order Shopping

“The Smallflower catalog is heaven. I order a bath surprise for my daughter-in-law—a different scented soap every month—giving her permission to lounge in her tub with magazines.”

Photo by Jared Leeds

7. Courier Wear

“This is my version of the Birkin bag—black and brilliant.”


What I’m Listening To

“Blues on Sirius radio. I have no memory for music, so each time is like the first time.”

What I’m Reading

The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ’50s, New York in the ’60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age by Richard Seaver, who was my first boss at Grove Press in July 1959. I adored him.”

What I’m Watching

“Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in my nightgown, teeth flossed.”

What I’m Eating

“Oatmeal with milk and raisins and seven chocolate bits, entered into Lose It! on my computer and cell phone. 512 calories. I’m trying to lose 25 pounds by Christmas.”