04 May 2008

Meeting Elsa Dorfman

We are glad to be able to present an interview with Elsa Dorfman. It would have been wonderful to meet you dear Elsa, in real life but as you accepted to answer these questions sent to you by email it is indeed the second best option.

As you will notice from this interview, Mrs Dorfman is not only a great photographer, she also knows how to communicate in writing (and we are sure about that; in live conversations as well)

The F blog: Many of your portraits are intensively "humanistic". The people on the photos seem so relaxed, natural, and "real". What is your secret, how do you get under peoples skin? You have also said that you consider yourself being partly a shaman or a medium when photographing. Have you ever turned someone down who commissioned you because you didn't feel like you could photograph them?

Elsa Dorfman: i have no idea how i get quote under people's skin. i do turn myself inside out to make them comfortable and relaxed and to let them be in control of what we do together. it's easy because i am in my own studio and can be like a passive director.sort of an editor of their postures. i try to be very embracing and approving. it isnt an act. I do think the portraits are little miracles. sort of like cliff hanging...or maybe a great sport feat. I never know how the image will turn out. i meditate and pray a lot before a session. i try to empty my brain.

well, read the above. maybe because i do so many self portraits i exude confidence cause i dont ask anyone to do something i havent done to mysellf. that is stand in front of the camera and accept my extra weight. imperfect hair cut. mismatched wardrobe whch i happen to approve, as in gudren clothes. i cant tell you how hard i work to make it seem effortless. I get easily confused, it isnt an act, and my subjects feel, oh my god, i better help her or she wont get my picture. so they remind me when i havent closed my lense. or the cable release is in front of the lense. or one light isnt working. they try extra hard to be relaxed cause they figure i am hapless, or or or

well, i only take a few exposures, one....then we see it 80 seconds later, then another one.....never more than 4. and now w/ film so precious and rare, definitelynot more than 4. I have a white seamless 12 feet wide....i put down a white tape abt three feet from t he back of the seamless. people stand on the tape. that's so that they go back to the same place......and so my lighting etc is regular. Usually people arrange themselves on the tape. not in a meaningful way...purposeful way. but i can instantly recognize if it is an order that will work or if i have to edit it......it's always people who have affection for eachother. a family, friends, an extended family.....people used to standing near eachother, who have a connection. i rarely rarely do people who are strangers to eachother.

well, the photo session really begins in email or a phone conversation, when they ask what i charge, even though it is on my website, or how i work or a million other questions. they can tell whether they want to come to me w/in five minutes on the phone i bet, and i can tell almost as quickly if they will be able to pay a lot of $$$ for a few exposures w/o freaking out. so my group of subjects is VERY self seldective. they are people who feel confident their family can do it. who figure they will like how their family looks no matter how quote they do it.....they will be charmed by their awkward teen, their screaming baby...The other people just never call back w/ the date of an appt. i bet i get 5 calls for 1 appt. email contacts are almost the same. but not quite so revealing. voice conveys a lot......and people have varyng language skills and project themselves in email lots of different ways.

I have had to send people away three times: one woman had had lasik surgery and blinked almost every time, FIVE sheets of film,eghad. one little girl just hated hated the lights, similarly abt ten years ago, a little boy freaked out w/ the lights. but considering all i've done, that isnt too bad a record. most of the people know their kids and they just dont come if they know their kid cant do it. there are always people willing to say, oh we can do it and they are WRONG. maybe i shld charge for the wasted film. hmmmmmm. And too, my subjects find me from their friends, so they have an idea of my style, what i want, and they come w/ some notion of what to expect.

F blog: What about digital cameras, do you have one? What other cameras do you like to use, if any?

Elsa Dorfman:
i have a little canon 3.2 that is abt four years old. i barely know how to use it. same for my cell fone camera. and i have my nikons and hasselblad still, and a 4x5.and of course polaroids that use 600 film. i am sick that i cant get 600 film anymore. i never ever thought that wd happen while i was alive. it is quite traumatic for me. like realizing love is over. or something equally solid, is over.....i'm still coming to terms w/ it. i keep on saying, ebay will have some, craigslist will hve some. the idea of NEVER is a tough one.

F blog: Did you have any mentors when you were first exploring photography?

Elsa Dorfman: i had a wonderful mentor, george cope, who worked where i worked in 1964. Educational Development Corp. first called Educational Services Inc. he had worked for bernice abbott and made it seem possible that i cd amt to something. weirdly i havent seen him in at least 25 years. And i had a friend irene schwachman who was a very good photographer and also a dear friend of berenice abbott. and of course ginsberg was my close close friend. And I had worked at Grove Press right after college. That job determined my destiny. My favorite photographer is bill cunningham of the new york times and i've never met him. Avedon too cd do no wrong in my book.

F Blog: When collaborating with Bob Creeley, which came first the portraits or the poetry?

Elsa Dorfman:
With creeley, the photos always came first. we did two projects, one, HIS IDEA is a little tiny book of poems and pictures i did of a couple making love. It is hard to find and not on my website cause i didnt want porn filters to limit my site. The other is en famille. in each case, i took the pictures w/o any thought of a poem, and bob saw the images and decided to write some poems to go along w/ the pix. and in each case, he knew someone to publish them. I think HIS IDEA is for sale on the web somewhere. The images are actually pretty sedate. Swedes wont raise an eye. but here........who knows.

F Blog:
What do you recall from your session with Bob Dylan back in 1975. (We have to ask you that)

Elsa Dorfman: Since i read yr ? abt the dylan/ginsberg picture, i have been wracking my brain for exactly how that picture came to be. it was in lowell, where kerouac grew up. there was heavy security. i was w/ allen. he was staying at my house. i had my camera but the concert guards took it awayy!!! we went into dylans dressing room....just a classroom...w/o desks and chairs....i gave dylan my housebook. dylan sd where is yr camera. i sd yr guards have it. he sd, go get it. so i did. i tok i think 7 exposures....no 2 alike. he had on blue sued shoes or maybe they were red....i forget...he asked me if poe was buried in boston? where did he live in boston. It was like ten minutes.at the very most. someone from the band came in to meet allen. then he performed.

Years later, say 30 a really really famous photographer who had the rights to photograph that series of concerts called me and asked me how come i had photographed bob and allen. how had i got in there. I was blown away. Had the guy wondered this for thirty years??? And then last year I brought a beautiful print of the image to a friend who was going to give it to dylan. I got a nice thank you from dylan's staff. I've always felt that image was a gift from dylan and allen or from dylan to allen and from allen to me.

It's a magical image. It even has magic for me and I made it. Once i got an email from someone who camped all over india w/ the image pasted to his knapsack and he had just learned i made the image.so he emailed me. I liked that. Email didnt exist of course when i made the image. It all figured and seemed destined, in a corny way. .

F blog: Did you grow up in a creative atmosphere?

Elsa Dorfman:
I didnt grow up in a creative atmosphere. I was born in 1937 and didnt have any toys. just paper dolls. I always wanted a doll house or a doll that came in a suitcase w/ clothes. I always thought i wd be a writer, but then i picked up a camera w/ george cope. when i was in college i wanted to be a writer. go figure.

It shows we can be more than one thing, good at more than one thing. I do think my images, taken together, are literary in a way. my parents were always broke, or so it seemed to me, and never had money for music or anything extraneous.they did get the readers digest and belonged to the book of the month club. and it was the war.that was a war that REALLY had an impact on civilians. unlike the iraq war. but i was surrounded by language. my mother loved language and loved to talk. and she loved stories. and bargains. so she and her friends shared their bargain hunting exploits.

F blog: You have an interesting navigation scheme on your web site. Do you plan to expand it, perhaps with totally new directions/topics?

Elsa Dorfman: i'm so glad you like my subway map. it came to me in a flash...mostly cause my husband always takes the subway. and i was struggling w/ how to get a navigation system on my site. my friend andrew grumet did the design. I got totally into subway design. There are some fabulous subway map designers. really classy. i am always putting in new topics....and now the subway has expanded so yes, i can add more lines. Does Stockholm have subways? maybe someone will put their site on that map. i really thought i wd start a trend among webmasters. a paris map, nyc. but it hasnt happened.

F blog:
Could you tell us your favourite story?

Elsa Dorfman: i dont really have a favorite story. except perhaps that i didnt think i wd work on the camera, w/ the camera, in my studio for twenty years. At the beginning in may 1987 after using the camera since 1980 in polaroid facilities, museum of fine arts, mass. college of art, etc. i got a month to month lease in a cambridge building cause i didnt know how long polaroid wd lease the 20x24 to me....and every year for twenty years i wd say to the landlord, i dont know if i'll have the camera for the whole next year......and i am still there.....except my favorite film p3 is now limited.

i guess the pictures that have the most meaning are the ones of people who come and who know they are dying. thankfully there arent many of those, but even a dozen is a lot. it is a great honor to be the one that someone chose to take the last family portrait. of course LAST is the subtext. there is always the prayer of a miracle.

F Blog: We are very proud of being able to show parts of your work on the F Blog and we hope you have enjoyed being here, many thanks dear Elsa. You have many new fans among our readers.

Elsa Dorfman: cheers and thanks so much. hello to stockholm. can't buy any gudrun this year. the dollar is tooo low.

Go and visit Elsa Dorfman´s web site for more pictures and stories: elsa.photo.net. You will also find Elsa among our invited photographers on The F Blog.

The questions have been prepared by Jeanne Wells, Rhonda Prince, Jan Buse and Ulf Fågelhammar.
All pictures presented are © Elsa Dorfman


Rhonda Boocock said...

Your pictures and stories are very inspiring to me...thank you so much for sharing with us here!

F said...

Learning that Elsa Dorfman is a Gudrun Sjödén-fan was the highlight of this lovely interview!


Anonymous said...

yes isn´t it?
she is a miracle
the stories, the pictures

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your generosity, Elsa. Yours is an amazing body of work & a wonderful life to hear about. I'm so happy to have been able to witness a bit of it.

Chris said...

Great to have this moment on the F blog! Great interview and thanks for being around Elsa!


br said...

thank you, Elsa, for giving this wonderful interview and accepting the invitation to Fblog. Your work is a vital contribution. !

Anonymous said...

Amazing! I hope that we will se more of your work here on the F blog!
F. Skott