© 2024
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

To Access Her Big, Boxy Muse, Photographer Set Her Sights On Allen Ginsberg

Before cellphone cameras and Instagram, there was Polaroid. That funky-looking camera took hold as a social phenomenon nearly as quickly as the little, instant photographs they brought to life.

For portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, Polaroid has meant something more. For the past 25 years, from her studio in Cambridge, Mass., Dorfman has photographed thousands of intimate moments — from anonymous families to illustrious figures like Julia Child and Errol Morris.

But if you're thinking she uses those small, portable cameras most people know as Polaroids, you might be a little off-base. Hers is actually a specially designed, large-format 20-by-24-inch Polaroid, which is taller than she is.

Elsa Dorfman, in self-portrait. The inscription on the bottom of the photo reads, "Me and my camera. May 28, 2003."
/ Elsa Dorfman
Elsa Dorfman
Elsa Dorfman, in self-portrait. The inscription on the bottom of the photo reads, "Me and my camera. May 28, 2003."

When she first encountered the camera in the mid-1970s, she knew she'd found something remarkable in the 6-foot box on wheels.

"You don't fall in love with how it looks so much as you fall in love with the pictures and Polaroid film," Dorfman says. "You pull the film out of the camera from below, you guide it out. There's something about that gesture that I've always said reminded me of delivering babies. But it was the color of the film that was so gorgeous. And anything can go wrong, so every one is like a miracle."

But before she discovered her life's work as a photographer, growing up in a quiet Boston suburb, Dorfman hadn't even considered the artistic life as a possibility.

"I was born right here in Boston in a Jewish neighborhood," she says. "It was a real sort of shtetl, where everybody knew everybody else and everybody knew everybody's business."

There weren't artists or countercultural types.

"The way I was brought up, the expectations were very low, and they were all about who you would marry and when you would get married, the younger the better," Dorfman says. "And I was a rebel. What were they gonna do with me? I think that was what was whispered behind my back. I was the kind of little girl who couldn't keep their white shoes white."

She adds: "I knew I wanted an unusual life, a creative life — even though God knows I didn't know the word creative. But I know I didn't want a plain old life."

The opportunity to escape her suburban beginnings came when she graduated from college and decided to take the leap to New York City. She went to work as a typist at Grove Press, a publishing house where poets and novelists often dropped by to copy their manuscripts on the in-house empico machine, a Xerox prototype.

"I was the girl who ran the empico machine, and I would answer the phone in those days," she recalls, "and then I would say, 'Oh, hi, James Baldwin.' "

One day, a visitor came to the office, someone Dorfman hadn't heard of before — a poet named Allen Ginsberg.

"So I was sitting at my desk in the middle of everything, and Allen had just come back from San Francisco. And everybody was just buzzing. He said, 'Where's the can?' So that was how I met Allen."

Her portrait of Ginsberg. The inscription at the bottom reads, "Allen Ginsberg. Cambridge, Mass. Feb. 7, 1980."
/ Elsa Dorfman
Elsa Dorfman
Her portrait of Ginsberg. The inscription at the bottom reads, "Allen Ginsberg. Cambridge, Mass. Feb. 7, 1980."

After her stint at Grove Press, Dorfman moved back to Cambridge, floating between various jobs, but nothing seemed to stick.

"The way Google is a San Francisco company, Polaroid was a Boston company," she says. "In Cambridge, if you were young, you kept on meeting people who worked at Polaroid."

It was one of those people who tipped Dorfman off about an experimental, large-format camera the company had developed. When she saw it for the first time, she knew she'd found her photographic calling. But she needed to get access to that rare camera.

"I thought, 'How am I gonna get Polaroid to help me?' And I thought, 'I can tell them I can get a picture of Allen Ginsberg!' " she says. "So actually I did, in February of 1980. Allen was coming to Boston, and I got the guy from Polaroid to give me 10 free pieces of film."

And they ended up being the very first photographs she got published.

"I guess it all came back to Allen. Allen was definitely my big break," she says. "And I wasn't such a bad break for Allen — because after all, we were friends for almost 50 years."

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.